It begins with a fanfare. With a few well-chosen notes, a mournful trumpet carries us to a far away place and proclaims that something is about to happen, calling on one’s full attention. And in every way, Sinners & Saints, the new album from Raul Malo, is worthy of that attention.
Self-produced in his home studio and brimming with deeply personal beliefs and passions, Sinners & Saints is the most intimate, honest and complex album Malo has made in an already distinguished career. You will hear in it a lifetime’s journey, from the singer and songwriter’s youth in the Cuban neighborhoods of Miami through his years with hit country band the Mavericks to his place today as one of the most intriguing and talented artists in the Americana and World Music scenes.
Rooted in Malo’s life-long connection to Latin music, but infused with his wide-ranging love of country, blues, jazz and vintage rock and roll, Sinners & Saints melds sonic ingenuity with emotional sincerity. His lyrics continue to mature, and his vision continues to sharpen. His musicianship, especially his ability to blend traditional Mexican instruments with his ferociously twanging guitars, is on full display. The many thousands of fans who have been on the journey with him so far will want to add this album to their collections, and for those finding out about Malo for the first time, Sinners & Saints will be an ideal introduction to his searching, eclectic and thoroughly appealing sound.
The title track opens the record, setting the album’s tone thematically and musically. Its origins lie in one of Malo’s oldest and most significant sense memories. From his boyhood and through his years coming of age in Miami, he spent many a night in neighborhood music rooms listening to local artists perform their Zarzuelas, in which guitarists and dancers stirred up fiery improvisations in the classic flamenco style.
“The guitar player would follow the dancer and the dancer would follow the guitar player. They’d play off each other,” Malo recalls. “And it would create this ambiance of intensity and passion that was really beautiful to watch, and it was really beautiful to be in that room when it was happening.”
Inspired by those musicians’ improvised songs, Malo wrote “Sinners & Saints” by conjuring up those nights in his head, attacking his electric guitar with a cross between flamenco melodicism and retro surf-twang, and singing spontaneously. First impulses were shaped into verses, and verses became a song that ruminates, a bit mysteriously, on the dark side of human nature, free of the structures or baggage associated with pop or country songwriting.
“It has no chorus, no repeatable hook line,” he says. “And it’s long. Purposefully long.”
That patient indulgence in pure, delicious musicality is but one way in which Malo has used Sinners & Saints to continue his growth from the effervescent and efficient pop-craft of his years with the Mavericks. They were a great band, and for the most part, he loved being part of it, but with platinum album sales and a major record label to keep up with, the Mavericks became a bounded musical universe where spontaneity was discouraged and side projects proved nearly impossible. His decision to part ways after more than a decade together was difficult, but in retrospect it was the best direction for Raul the artist.
“My world has changed completely since those days,” he says. “I went from a bus and two semis to driving up and down the Jersey Turnpike with a tour manager and a rental car and my acoustic guitar playing these little clubs on the East Coast. And I found myself having more fun, and seeing more and learning more, and meeting more wonderful people than I did in all my years of touring in the Mavericks.”
In his post Mavericks world, Malo also was able to pursue side projects that took him into territory he needed to explore. His collaboration with members of Los Lobos, Rick Trevino and others in the Latin super-group Los Super Seven was an artistic turning point, where the possibilities of a progressive approach to traditional music from Cuba, Mexico and Texas became abundantly clear and tantalizing. Malo’s first solo album, Today, released in 2001, had one foot in that world and one in the songwriting ferment of Nashville’s Americana scene. That stylistic journey has continued, finding a new stopping-off point with Sinners & Saints.
“Living For Today,” the album’s second track, ventures into socio-political territory. Against an upbeat soundscape that includes chiming guitars, the Vox organ of Augie Meyers and the background vocals of The Trishas, Malo laments the short-term, self-centered myopia that sometimes seems to have gripped American business, government and culture. Anyone who rolled their car over their Dixie Chicks CDs in 2003 probably won’t put this one at the top of their hit parade, but in a musical space that includes the biting observations of Rodney Crowell, Todd Snider or James McMurtry, this anxiety-venting song will be a welcome addition.
And speaking of Rodney Crowell, fans will be thrilled to hear Malo’s heart-felt reading of his modern-day standard “Til I Gain Control Again.” While it has vague echoes of the country-leaning covers made famous by Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and others, Malo’s intense vocals invest the song with a fevered, Otis Redding-like soul vibe. It produces perhaps the most emotionally loaded moments on the disc.
“I’ve wanted to record that song for a long time and never found the right time or place but thematically for this record, what a perfect fit,” Malo says. “Talk about a sinner and a saint. That song embodies both and you can hear him coming to terms with what he’s done.”
Moreover, the track demonstrates the intensity Malo demanded of himself in the very difficult position of being producer, artist and sideman all at once. “I don’t think I would have been able to do that with anybody else there,” he says. “It was at night. The kids were gone. I did it a couple of times and that’s a complete take. It’s not perfect, but the emotion is there. I remember that night being just physically shaken when I was done and I had never really experienced that before.”
The disc’s other songs are also full of special moments. Raul did emerge from his home studio long enough to go to Austin to record an original song called “Superstar” with his pals in the Texas Tornados. That and several other tracks feature the blazing Tex-Mex accordion of hotshot Michael Guerra, like the fun and bubbly “San Antonio Baby.” In a more serious vein, Malo delivers the classic Spanish song “Sombras” in the stunning tenor voice that’s made him famous. And one really hears Raul stretching into new arranging and mixing territory with his cover of Los Lobos’ “Saint Behind The Glass.” The rich broth of percussion, guitars and Mexican instruments will leave audiophiles deeply absorbed, and the cryptic lyrics offer an appropriately ambiguous finale to the album.
Raul Malo has seen and done a great deal in his career, but Sinners & Saints demonstrates there is much more inside him and his ever-changing spirit relishes new challenges and ideas. “This is the hardest I’ve ever worked on an album,” he says with a mixture of relief and pride. That includes the physical labor of confronting the studio alone day after day as well as the emotional courage to challenge his listeners and speak his mind. “This really is about me and my point of view. I realized that after I’d done it. It reflects really how I feel about a lot of things. That’s why this is as much of me as I’ve ever put on a record.”