Whether we realize it or not, the success of American Idol and other like-minded cultural kitsch has influenced how many of us judge singers now. Passion has been co-opted by plastic soul, depth has been subsidized by vocal gymnastics and true charisma has been knocked off by cheap showmanship. Though this might not yet be a sign of the apocalypse, it sure doesn't make pop culture's excesses slide down the gullet any easier.
All of which brings me to Raul Malo, a singer extraordinaire who quietly bucks recent musical trends. The ex-Maverick released his third record, You're Only Lonely, a covers collection that showcases his golden voice and exquisite taste in music.
In speaking with me by phone from his Nashville home recently, Malo offers a fitting analogy for how we should listen to singers these days.
"I've always felt singers are like Olympic divers — the less splash there is, the better the execution," he says. "The problem now is that everyone is doing cannonballs."
The irony is that with his amazing vocal range, Malo is more than capable of displaying that "look at me" quality that turns any hint of soul into melodramatic, over-the-top mush. But like the best singers from any era, from Sinatra to Bennett to Orbison, Malo understands the value of restraint.
In making You're Only Lonely, Malo enlisted the help of the famed Brit Peter Asher, '70s producer of prime Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor, among others.
"I didn't meet him until he came to see a Mavericks reunion show in London," Malo says, "and then we hit it off. Peter wanted to make a record that showcased me as a vocalist, and I was excited just to work with him."
Though still relatively young, Malo has already had a lengthy career: 15 years with the genre-bending Mavericks and three solo records. Even though they were multi-platinum sellers as well as Grammy winners, The Mavericks never seemed to get quite enough credit for their original hybrid sound: a swirling cocktail of Country twang, Pop hooks and Latino rhythms that uniquely stood out among their contemporaries.
"For recording the new covers project, we didn't have a theme at the start," he says. "I mean, Rod Stewart has already cornered the market on certain standards, so we looked elsewhere. We just compiled a list of our favorite songs and started to whittle them down. The common thread between all the songs is that I sat down with an acoustic guitar and had a checklist — if they sounded believable and true, they might make the cut. But we approached the originals as if they were demos to record."
The final list of contenders contained some old standbys as well as some surprises. The title track, written by J.D. Souther, has been in Malo's repertoire for a while now. It's a soothing, graceful opener steeped in romantic melancholy, the neon-lit, late-night variety that Malo specializes in, just like his idol and the man whose voice his is most often compared to, Roy Orbison.
From that starting point, he goes on to cover classics such as Willie Nelson's "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground," the Everly Brothers' "So Sad," Randy Newman's "Feels Like Home" and even the Bee Gees' "Run to Me."
But it was Etta James' old torch standard, "At Last," that gave him second thoughts. Malo admits, "Everyone knows her version of that song. That gave me the most trepidation, but Peter suggested that we forget the song's iconic history and just cut it."
Perhaps wisely, Malo chooses not to belt that song out like Etta did, but with his velvet voice he still finds a way to make it his own.
This is Malo's second covers collection in a row; the first being the Bluegrass-inflected Nashville Acoustic Sessions, which came out in 2004. He says, "It's fun to do covers, and show people where your heart lies. They've always been a part of my set." In that project, he covers everyone from Bob Dylan to Jimmy Rodgers to Gordon Lightfoot with some Nashville studio aces accompanying him. It's a fine collection, if a bit more offbeat and less suited to his dynamic voice and temperament than You're Only Lonely's suite of crooner-friendly material.
With all these eclectic songs and his originals at Malo's beck and call, it's a treat now to see him live. I caught him playing solo at the Southgate House last year, and armed with just his nylon-stringed acoustic guitar and that electric voice, he put on a stunning set and eventually encored with an a capella version of "Moon River," which set lovers loose arm-in-arm in the Newport streets.
"I make records so I can go play live," Malo says. "There's nothing like interacting with an audience during a show and even afterwards."
A longtime Springsteen fan, Malo says he gets inspired from watching legendary performers like The Boss. "My first concert was Elvis Presley in Miami, where I'm from. Not a bad start. I was 11 years old, and there was no looking back. Since then, I've seen Springsteen a number of times in concert, and his shows are almost like religious revivals, soul-inspiring. That's what I'm looking for."
Whether performing solo, live or with a band, Malo takes each gig at face value. "I try not to forget that in every place I play I'm someone's night out on the town." He feels comfortable with the Mavericks' legacy, too.
"The Mavericks are done," he says. "We did the comeback tour a few years ago, but now we're on our own. I'm proud of what we did together."
Malo is also writing new material for upcoming projects, and one record is already in the can waiting for release next year.
RAUL MALO and his band play the Southgate House Saturday with Peter Mulvey.