Raul Malo "After Hours"

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  • MikeK
    Junior Member
    • Aug 2000
    • 16

    Raul Malo "After Hours"

    Raul Malo has one of the tenor twelve best voices working in popular music today. OK, bad joke perhaps, but true. In fact, he is in my top five. Chris Isaac, Michael Buble, Harry Connick Jr…Raul Malo? Who the heck is Raul Malo you are probably asking. Hopefully after reading this review you will no longer wonder who he is, but instead wonder at his amazing vocal talent.

    Raul Malo was one of the founding members of The Mavericks, a band that garnered almost unanimous critical acclaim, a Country Music Association award for vocal group of the year in 1996, and a variety of other awards. But I never felt The Mavericks belonged in the Country Music category, especially later in their career. They really broke a few molds, but if you have a steel guitar in your music, you must be country, or so American record labels believe. After some years of success with The Mavericks, Malo struck out on his own. This was inevitable. The Mavericks were a magical combo and all skilled musicians, but Malo's voice was the gift. He was destined to move on.

    Malo now has four solo efforts under his belt. Each is as different as a new day and all have a flavor that defies categorization. His last effort "You're Only Lonely", while filled to the brim with beautiful music, was in my opinion a tad overcooked. The arrangements were exceedingly lush and Malo's voice seemed to have an unnatural sounding bottom end to it. Yet, "You're Only Lonely" is still on my heavy rotation list. When it was first released I saw the track list and noticed "At Last" was one of the songs. I had been of the mind previously that song belonged to Etta James and should not be touched by another artist. I had never heard it done justice by anyone else. Raul's version has become a "go to" song when I am giving a demonstration of my stereo system to a guest. I guess he changed my mind.

    His newest effort "After Hours" is a collection of classic country music songs that he simply wanted to sing and record. This was the "record he always wanted to make" according to Malo. I thought back on the last time I could remember someone with such a powerful, soulful voice doing an album of country music covers and a name popped up. The great Ray Charles did it once. Could Raul follow in Ray's footsteps? Those are some incredibly large shoes to fill.

    First I will speak to the music on the album, then to the very unique recording process used. The process is not really all that unique, but it is extremely rare to use this process in a major label release these days. This method enhances the magic of this album, so I will examine it later

    The Music:

    Vintage country music songs, sung by an extraordinary contemporary vocalist without all the country music trappings…can it work? Yes, very well in fact. Malo's covers of these great songs are not what you might expect to hear. Actually, I am familiar with all of his work dating back to The Mavericks, and even I was surprised. Imagine country music slamming head on into Count Basie or Benny Goodman. An odd combination, but an exquisite one I assure you. I was unfamiliar with several of the songs, so with Malo's version being my first exposure to them I have no frame of reference. But in reality I do have a frame, the level of quality the other songs attained. Surely if they were crafted so well, the same must be true for the ones I did not know.

    "Welcome to my world" is an old Jim Reeves tune, but I also remember Eddie Arnold singing this song. Malo takes it a bit further and adds a lilting clarinet to the instrumentation. At first the clarinet seemed odd, but mid way through the song, I couldn't imagine the song without it.

    Malo's vocal performance on this song is perhaps the best on the record. It is smooth and velvet like. But saying that is like reviewing a Sophia Loren movie and commenting on how beautiful she looked. Duh! His voice is always like butter, and the music is a lobster tail.

    "A fool such as I" is a song that I recall being an Elvis Presley tune. Malo adds an Elvis tone to his voice and pulls it of in just the right amount so as not to appear to be an imitator of, but more an homage to, the king. The piano takes on a honky tonk sound and perhaps an upright piano was used for this song. This is a very up-tempo song with a great "mini" horn section (all reed driven horns).

    "For the good times" Made popular by Ray Price, this Kris Kristofferson penned tune has a nice steel guitar included for your listening pleasure. A steel guitar mixed with a Benny Goodman type orchestral arrangement sounds like it wouldn't work, but I believe Malo can pull a rabbit out of any hat he chooses. The Piano is back to "grand" sounding and so is the voice. I must comment on the drummers (Tom Lewis) brushwork as well. It is very nicely done, without a lot of overly rambunctious sweeping.

    "Pocket of a Clown" Here the vocals are the key to the songs success. The drummer keeps "time" with a rim strike and we hear a horn section, but all reeds, no trombones or trumpets. In fact, there are no real "horns" on the album, which is why I believe it takes me back to Benny Goodman who played down the horns in favor of the reeds. This tune is very good, but not one of my favorites.

    "Crying time" When I first heard of this album, I knew it would have a Buck Owens tune on it. Malo is a huge fan of Buck and even has a Fender Telecaster with Buck's autograph on it that he uses sometimes. This song should do Buck proud. Malo's voice does not have the twang of Buck, but this arrangement would not support a twang anyway. This song has been transformed from a country song into a near jazz ballad. It's all good.

    "Cold, cold heart" The first of two Hank Williams Sr. songs on the record, this is one of the best cuts on the disc. Malo has taken a Hank ballad and made a great swing version of it. This was totally unexpected and brilliantly executed. Seldom following the original melody, but singing the harmony part AS the melody, Malo adds a fresh twist to this classic. Each time this plays I need to hit the track back button and listen again. It is playing now and I will do just that in a moment. If you don't want to dance when you hear this…check your pulse and have someone call the coroner.

    "You can depend on me" This is one of the songs I was unfamiliar with. I love it none the less. Again the lilting clarinet and subtle brushwork shine through. The bassist (Jay Weaver) knows when to lay low and does not add a flurry of superfluous notes as is often the case in a really slow ballad like this. I only heard one bass run during the clarinet solo. The key to the mastery of an instrument is in knowing when not to play as well as when to show your "mad skillz".

    "Husbands and wives" OK, so I can't like them all. This one reminds me of a BJ Thomas tune. I'm not much of a fan of this "sound"

    "It only hurts when I cry" This is a wonderful little shuffle that features the "horns" and the drummer actually gets to hit the snare with a stick! The snare is tuned quite high so it comes through exceptionally well and acts almost as an instrument rather than a rhythm keeper.

    "Take these chains from my heart" Although not written by Hank, this is a Hank song. And it was one of Hanks more up-tempo tunes. So Malo has successfully taken a somber Williams' tune and pepped it up and took a peppy Williams' tune and slowed it down. What a great move. This is the perfect song to end the album with as well. This song starts out sounding like Raul is singing with Joe Pass playing guitar. Once the ensemble kicks in the piano (Robert Chevrier) is a feature instrument. No honky tonk here, full on jazz styling. And instead of a clarinet, we are treated to a saxophone solo (Jim Hoke). The song builds slowly and at its climax becomes a slightly swing jazz style ballad. Most excellent.

    All together this is an exceptional effort by Malo and the musicians. When I find an album with only on "skipper" (a track that gets bumped) I have found a gem.

    The Recording:

    Malo somehow convinced his new label, New Door Records, to let him record a live studio album. This is often done for jazz acts on audiophile labels, but seldom in mainstream recordings. During my days as a musician, we always recorded live in the studio, but we also overdubbed...a lot. In the liner notes Malo states that they did not overdub anything but the horns and the steel guitar. Since a single musician played all the horns AND the steel guitar, this would be necessary…unless he was an octopus.

    A live studio recording has many advantages, and some disadvantages. On the upside, the musicians are all within sight of each other and can draw on the energy created when playing together. The downside is that there is instrument "bleed" on all the tracks. So the vocal track will have guitar, piano etc all on it as well, albeit at lower levels than the vocals. This can make the final mixing a bit of a headache, but allows the energy of the performance to shine through much more than the "traditional" studio method of having each musician play isolated or even at different times. The benefits outweigh the pitfalls.

    In many audiophile "live studio" recordings, only two overhead microphones are used. When I heard this recording I thought they had used proximity mics (microphones on each instrument) and some ambient mics as well. The vocals and instrumentation seemed too well defined for this to be a simple two mic recording. So I asked Raul, (he is amazingly accessible to his fans…my highest props to him for that) and he confirmed that they did use proximity microphones. He also revealed that they used vacuum tube based microphone pre-amps. This attention to detail makes for a very smooth sounding recording and one with a definite "period" feel that I believe they were trying to achieve.

    There is no digital harshness, no vocal sibilance and no etching around the instruments. This recording has a very clean sound, but not squeaky clean like some. Each instrument has its own space and lives there peacefully with the other instruments in the forest. The soundstage is large but not overwhelming so and the imaging is solid but not overly tight.

    Malo's vocals sound very natural on this release. I am certain there was some processing done to them, but from what I have heard of him in live performances I assume that the "pitch corrector" in pro-tools can be disabled when he is at the mic. As I mentioned earlier, his previous album "You're only lonely" sounded a bit overcooked to me. The bass was fat and the production was a tad too lush. On "After Hours" a much different direction was taken. They took a less is more approach, and the final sound bears the sweet fruit of their efforts. The recording is well balanced from top to bottom and all the instruments play an equal part in creating the magical musical tapestry. But even so, there is no mistake as to which instrument is the most important in the mix.

    Raul's magnificent voice.

    Highly recommended.

    Mike Knapp

    A FINAL NOTE (literally)

    The last sound on the album is the sound of the sustain pedal on the piano being released. The reason this is interesting is that the last note had faded and this sound would normally have been edited out of the final mix.

    I believe it must have been left intact as a symbolic ending to the piece of work. I may be wrong, but I enjoy a good poetic waxing ever now and again. Little things like this make a huge difference to me.
  • John Holmes
    Moderator Emeritus
    • Aug 2000
    • 2703

    Hello Mike,

    Nice to see you posting again. Your contributions, are always a fun read.

    "I have come here, to chew bubblegum and kickass. And I'm all out of bubblegum!!!"


    • Chris D
      Moderator Emeritus
      • Dec 2000
      • 16877

      Hey, Mike! :later: yes, good to see you here again. I don't suppose I'm going to see you at CEDIA here in the next 3 days, am I?

      Well, we're safe for now. Thank goodness we're in a bowling alley.
      - Pleasantville


      • MikeK
        Junior Member
        • Aug 2000
        • 16

        Thanks for the kind words.

        Gonna miss Cedia this year. Will enjoy reading about it though.



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