June Bugs

Local bands put something in our ear for summer

We're still up to our sweaty little ears in recorded music from around here, so cut on the a/c and find patience. If you're waiting for reviews of other area projects, hang in there and stay tuned in. Everyone knows how much more time must be allotted to laundering clothes in the atmospheric swelter time period, and you do want us to wear clean clothes, don't you? There will be yet another slew of local reviews coming up before the snow falls. Promise.

From Hell to Paradise

There was a time when the Mavericks aimed to be, in their own words, "more than just a country band." A rockabilly attitude informed their music, but, as lead vocalist/songwriter Raul Malo conceded nearly two years ago, "Every time we send a [demo] tape to New York, it gets routed to Nashville." Malo has no one to blame but himself. He was blessed with a voice that has that melancholy hitch characteristic of nearly every great country singer since Hank Sr.; it is the steed upon which the Mavericks' fortunes ride. On From Hell to Paradise they saddle up and give that hoss a nasty taste of their spurs.

Four of the ten cuts on FHtP are reworkings of songs from the Mavs' self-titled 1991 Y&T Records release. Results are mixed. "A Better Way" clearly benefited from the updating, while "The End of the Line" lost some of its mock-rollicking, old-time-religion feel and drags a bit. "This Broken Heart" sounds slicker and less languid, while "Mr. Jones" has a new fullness, sacrificing some of the despondence. On balance it looks like a pretty even trade: one winner, one loser, two judgment calls.

"Hey Good Lookin'" provides a freshly upbeat treatment of the Hank Williams, Sr., classic that keeps things moving nicely, although it's not likely to make anyone forget the original. It is the better of two covers included on the disc, the other being a serviceable rendition of the Harlan Howard/Buck Owens tune "Excuse Me (I Think I've Got a Heartache)." Choosing to include this cover rather than an original like "Watch Over Me" or "You'll Never Know" is a major head-scratcher.

Of the four previously unreleased originals, the title tune stands out as an example of everything that makes the four horsemen mavericks. First there's the subject matter, a powerful tongue-lashing of the Castro regime - not the kind of topic one might expect Garth to brook. Try to picture Randy Travis delivering a line like, "I cursed and scratched the devil's hand/As he stood in front of me/One last drag from his big cigar/And he finally set me free." You'd have to swallow a bucket full of anti-hokiness pills. Yet the words sound perfectly natural coming out of Malo's mouth, brimming with just the right measure of resentment and defiance. Credible.

Unfortunately, "Children" sounds great but doesn't bear up as well lyrically. Try this mixed-metaphor-cum-non sequitur: "Shot down by the gun of a runaway train/Called life in the fast lane it all ends the same." Malo has a tendency to swing from the hip lyrically, throwing his share of wild punches but landing a few haymakers as well. He wins enough rounds with the big themes that he can be forgiven for telegraphing his licks. And not many songwriters have the luxury of such a striking voice to fall back on when the lyric isn't going anywhere.

Talent, then, is not the big question facing the Mavericks. They have that in abundance and display it prominently on this, their first major-label release. The mystery is whether America's vast record-buying heartland is ready for a country band from a city many no longer consider to be part of the United States, fronted by a baby-face, ponytailed enigma named Raul, singing songs about homelessness, religious hucksterism, and Cuban exile. Will it play in Peoria? What will they notice first, the band's music or the drummer's earring? Will "This Broken Heart" end up in jukeboxes around the country, or in the cutout bin at Wal-Mart? From Hell to Paradise raises as many questions as it answers, but it makes one thing clear: In the unlikely event the band is a commercial bust, at least the Mavericks will have died with their boots on.

-- Todd Anthony

Tom Maestu
(demo cassette)

Trivia question: What local pop-rock band was Raul Malo a member of prior to the Mavericks? (Hint: They created a minor sensation at Miami Rocks.) If you answered the Basics, you advance to the bonus round, where the question is: "Who was their lead singer?" (Hint: It wasn't Malo.) If you answered Tom Maestu, you win the grand prize, an official NewTimes-endorsed, 100 percent biodegradable, symbolic pat on the back.

While the gold-throated Malo donned cowboy boots and a ten-gallon hat, rounded up a posse of fine country players, and rode off into the sunset looking for that place where Kendall and Nashville meet, Maestu remains with both feet planted firmly in R&B-flavored pop. In fact, Maestu's material could form the basis for a doctoral dissertation on pop craftsmanship. Hook-laden and melodic, his compositions all sound vaguely familiar but never overtly derivative. This is the stuff of which Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston albums are made - slick, impeccably performed, and imbued with just enough emotion to obscure the formula.

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