Sinners & Saints is the fifth album in the solo career of Raul Malo, and his second release for Concord Music Group's Fantasy label. Malo rose to prominence in the 1990s as the vocalist and leader of the Mavericks, a band that added pop and Latin influences to its Grammy-winning take on country. Malo began releasing solo albums in 2001, moved on from the Mavericks officially in 2006, and has been recording and touring steadily ever since. Malo chose to get out of Nashville and record this album in Austin, Texas, and he invited many excellent Texan guests to the sessions, including San Antonio living legend Augie Meyers (the Sir Douglas Quintet, Texas Tornados) playing his distinctive Vox Continental organ stabs on several tracks, Shawn Sahm (son of deceased legend Doug Sahm) providing electric guitar in the spirit of his father, Michael Guerra (Texas Tornados) flexing his accordion skills, and up-and-coming Austin group The Trishas (Savannah Welch, Kelley Mickwee, Liz Foster, Jamie Wilson) singing close harmony background vocals. The tracks featuring the guests have a jam session looseness that keeps the proceedings from slipping into the controlled preciousness to which some singer-songwriters are prone. Malo allows his talented friends to shine, but he remains the star of his own show, playing many instruments (including guitars, drums, organ, and ukulele) and displaying technical facility with a variety of musical styles. He is a talented instrumentalist, especially on guitar, but his primary instrument is his magnificent voice. The opening title track begins with a solo trumpet motif that sounds like a Spaghetti Western theme, but it quickly veers into surf music territory when the snare cracks and the reverb-laden guitar commences to twang. Malo doesn't enter singing until two minutes into the song, almost as if he is teasing his listeners by withholding the goods. He displays the strength of his upper register while referring to an unnamed sinister something that could happen to you in this world with more sinners than saints. The song sets an intensely dramatic mood, which dissipates when the laidback groove of "Living For Today" kicks in. Meyers adds his pulsing organ to the chorus while The Trishas join Malo in declaring the song's "one day at a time" mantra. "San Antonio Baby" is as joyous and danceable a plea from a spurned lover to his lost sweetheart as you're likely to hear. Michael Guerra adds a double dose of conjunto, playing bajo sexto in addition to accordion, Meyers piles on the Vox Continental, and Malo sings of feeling "like a king who's no longer royalty." A singer-songwriter's choice of cover songs can reveal influences, affinities, and alliances. Some artists choose songs they feel are deserving of exposure to wider or different audiences. Malo has stated in interviews he has a hard time fathoming why Rodney Crowell can't get played on country radio. On Crowell's " 'Til I Gain Control Again," Malo milks the pathos of the lyrics and the melody in a manner that calls to mind Van Morrison. It still might not garner commercial radio airplay for Crowell's song, but it is a stirring performance. "Staying Here" sounds like an unearthed Jimmy Webb gem--the gentle wah-wah pedal on the electric guitar shading the strummed acoustic lends a 1970s tinge, as do the near-gospel backing vocals from The Trishas--but it is another Malo original. The uncertainty the song's narrator expresses should elicit nods of understanding from anyone who has decided to remain in a relationship but still thinks of leaving. "Superstar" offers more Texas Tornados-style South Texas magic. Malo calls out Michael Guerra by name to take his accordion solo, and Guerra makes the most of it, eliciting an ecstatic grito from Malo. "Sombras" is Malo's version of a lovelorn ranchera that was a hit in the early 1960s for popular Mexican singer Javier Solis. Malo slows the tempo and delivers a passionate vocal performance of the Spanish lyrics, while Guerra's accordion combined with Bobby Flores's pedal steel guitar blurs the Mexico/Texas musical border. The ache in Malo's voice echoes that of Roy Orbison, one of his main influences, and this quality is most apparent on "Matter Much To You." The album concludes with a cover of Los Lobos's "Saint Behind The Glass" (from their 1992 album Kiko). It is a tender reading of the song, adding requinto guitar, ukulele, and Hawaiian steel guitar to the mix. The three chords repeating throughout continue into a fade, leaving the mysteries of the impressionistic lyrics floating in the air and the harmonic progression unresolved. The effect is that of an ellipsis, which makes me eager to hear how Malo will continue with his next release. Malo's musical talents deserve to be represented in more library collections.
University of Wisconsin-Madison