First, a confession: I was originally going to use this space to review Atoms for Peace, a side project by Radiohead tripster Thom Yorke and shirtless spaz Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Their LP is weird, technotic, a music critic's moody paradise.
But as I was listening to that, I was going through my work mail. And when I opened In Time, the first new album from the Mavericks in eight-plus years — man, I love these guys, all parts rock and twang and surf and mariachi and even polka! — I started having serious second thoughts.
Then I heard that near-operatic vocal of Mavs singer Raul Malo, a burly Cubano with wicked seduction skills — and one of the best singers around, no hyperbole, folks — and I changed my mind for good.
Let's have fun instead, okay?
Back in their Grammy-winning mid-'90s heyday, the Mavericks were marketed as a country act thanks to retrofitted smashes What a Crying Shame and O What a Thrill. But trying to corral Malo into one genre is a waste of time and talent. So followup hits included Tijuana horns (Dance the Night Away) and Tejano twirls (All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down). The band's peak turned out to be a straight-ahead take on weepy Hollies classic The Air That I Breathe.
Malo's restlessness and eclecticism probably cost the band bigger success and a smoother history. But from the sound of the new stuff, the four other guys in the band have come to terms with his wanderlust, as Malo had a hand in writing all 14 tracks, making In Time predictably unpredictable — and one of the very best albums of 2013.
With a husky crooner's flair, Malo could sing your taxes and make you happy that you owed. He belts songs like Babe Ruth swatted hardballs — with confidence, panache and a big-man's grace. Nothing phases him: the swingin' polka Fall Apart, the jitterbug bounce As Long As There's Loving Tonight, the matadorial werewolf prowl Come Unto Me.
Opening cut Back in Your Arms Again is riding music for a Mexican zamboni, with Jerry Dale McFadden's ice-rink organ accented by Eddie Perez's wah-wah guitars. But in a classic Mavericks move (some lover is always leaving or threatening to leave or afraid to leave), Malo delivers his vocal as if he's down, and defeated, on his knees. He pulls the same sly move on Born to Be Blue: torch it up while the rest of the band tries to cheer him up.
Yes, there is an assortment of straight-up low-down ballads: the laconic, harmonica-accented In Another's Arms, the winking cha-cha Amsterdam Moon.
But the album's bravest departure is the eight-minute (Call Me) When You Get to Heaven, which takes the art of longing to epic levels. At one darkly comic point, the gospel-raised McCrary Sisters show up to answer the protagonist's plea, or maybe welcome him through the Pearly Gates. Malo's vocal is contained — until it isn't, and the finale becomes a sultry holler of lost souls. On the finest albums of their career, the Mavericks make kicking the bucket sound like a sweet ride. Let's see Atoms for Peace do that.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.