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
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.
"Draculove," the first song on the tape, is also the least characteristic of Maestu's norm. It's a goofy/catchy synth-driven number that sounds a little like Prince doing the "Monster Mash." Herman Munster would give it a ten and dance to it. More representative of the songwriter is "Zara's Calling," which showcases Maestu's impressive voice and threatens to jerk the listener onto the dance floor, but fails to make good on that threat. Maestu leaves no page in the songwriter's handbook unturned: unconventional chord progressions, nimble changes, novel bridges, and easy-to-hum choruses. It appears that so much attention is being paid to song construction that there is a corresponding shortage of genuine emotion. "Tenderness" and "Far Away" are ballads coated with varying degrees of syrup, sincere but a tad too cloying and well-mannered to make you want to go back for seconds. Like "Zara's Calling," they sound calculated and, at their worst, borderline whiny. At the same time they're polished enough to pass for Stevie Wonder throwaways.
The lingering suspicion that Maestu is at his best when he's at his most basic is borne out by "Heaven," the catchiest song on the tape and one of the better white-boy-reggae tunes in recent memory. The song is nothing fancy, just an infectious chorus and a few snappy verses, but it works, and in so doing reinforces the notion that Maestu's biggest shortcoming is an unwillingness to let his hair down enough to sound truly funky or soulful. But what the hell, a little prissiness never hurt Michael Bolton.
-- Todd Anthony
6 4 U
(indedendent cassette release)
I hate the trend of letter/number abbreviations for English language words, trendized mostly by Prince. I love the approach, sound, and potential of this band's tape, though, so let's forgive Soup Town their titular indiscretion and cut 2 the chase. Ex-members of two cool local groups - the Girls and Broken Spectacles - have teamed to form a formidable songcrafting crew capable of placing their creations into a band context (at least on tape; they hadn't played live as of this writing). Anyone familiar with the Specs, and to a lesser extent the Girls, will not be surprised by the versatility and variety of the results.
Led by vocalist/songwriter Mark Snow, the Soupers pour through a shuffling anthem ("Itasca Boys"), a floating drama ("Twilight on the Dance Floor"), and a pair of especially affecting and effective character studies ("Life Alone," "24 Karat Cold"). The musicians work in obvious comfort and full composure as they ladle out these chunky beauties. No pressure on the listener, nothing forced, the product of experience and that old bone called "good songwriting." The easy harmonies of "24 Karat Cold" and "Sky of Red" are examples, as is this lyric from the release's highlight entry, "Life Alone": "She's 35 and single/She wants a boy to put that little twinkle back in her eyes/She'll quit smoking and learn how to dance/All she wants is just a little romance/To put that jangle jingle back in her life alone."
-- Greg Baker
(independent cassette release)
There are people out there who actively seek music capable of inflicting irreversible brain damage, and they are gravitating toward this band by the wardful. You don't have to have been weaned on toxic waste to enjoy Hellraiser Sessions, but it helps. Rumor has it Dan Quayle could manage something resembling intelligent thought before he heard Load for the first time.
We haven't had a band like this in South Florida since the Drills. Most of Load's members are so young they were doing flip turns in amniotic fluid when the MC5 and Iggy pioneered the territory: speed-thrash-primal screaming-drug laced-tattooed Satan mosh music. Frankie and Annette it ain't. Sample song title: "Does Dying Godflesh Smell?"
Hide the china.
-- Todd Anthony
Veterans of the local rock scene with a smattering of still-functioning brain cells might remember a band called Southern Trust, a group of straight-ahead rockers that performed fairly regularly at the glorious, notorious old haunts like Rollo's, Ma Grundy's, the Brasserie, Le Joint, etc. during the disco heyday of the late Seventies. They released two singles and one album of original material, but their main claim to fame was a virtual monopoly on the Cuban-American teen circuit of Columbus, Belen, Lourdes, St. Brendan's, Carrolltown, and the Big Five Club, making the world safe for the Beatles, the Stones, and Zeppelin during the dark and frightening Travolta years.
Dany Lynen was a prominent member of Southern Trust, and is justifiably proud of the fact that a generation of young professionals in South Florida had "Twist and Shout" to dance to at their proms rather than "Love to Love You, Baby." It's heartening to see that he's still out there fighting the good fight, still writing songs in that late Sixties/early Seventies Beatles/Stones/Dylan mode and doing a bang-up job of it.
-- Todd Anthony
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Rest Your Head
(Gimbus 555 Productions)
Maybe it's about textures, like Kevin MacIvor's famed visual-art works. Can't think of another reason for someone with MacIvor's bright rock track record - the Bobs and Ordinary Language, two immortal outfits - to abandon the lingo of the heart and mind for all groove, dance-oriented pop whose target is the feet. Has EMF made that big an impact on our culture?
A re-energized reworking of "For What It's Worth" might be cool - if the Candy Skins hadn't already done it. No, it's not a bad track; the Lou Reed touches and the six-string mayhem at the end nearly justify its inclusion here. And give the benefit to the translation of "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" in "Great Way to Travel" - there's enough noise bouncing around and piling up to make it work. But work for whom? Is this what they're listening to in clubs? What do you do with something like this?
MacIvor and his merry Bobs made living in Miami in the early and middle Eighties worthwhile - their various releases stand as some of the best ever in the rock genre, their live shows remain moving memories. Ordinary Language was mightily different, but equally compelling. There's simply no doubt that MacIvor is one of the giants among songwriting guitarists. None of which explains the beat-happy and completely unaffecting songs on this six-cut effort. Maybe I just don't understand Slang.