That Raul Malo is one of the truly great vocalists—in any genre—is indisputable. That Sinners & Saints, his new record after 2009’s exquisite ramble Lucky One, strains to incorporate all of Malo’s eclectic tastes is more debatable.
For much of the past decade, the former Maverick has kept busy, building a respectable solo career. Malo walked away from the critically acclaimed group in 2001, after record label turbulence and the underrated Trampoline failed to catch fire Stateside. With each successive record, Malo has demonstrated ever-greater contempt for Nashville (and mainstream pop-rock, for that matter), and its need to have stars conform to an easily digestible style.
If anything, 2007’s After Hours and last year’s Lucky One are firm repudiations of the need for simple labels. Malo ably flits between genres, often within the same song; jazz, country, folk, Latin pop and Cuban flourishes are evident throughout. What holds it all together is that warm, soaring, rich-as-bourbon tenor, capable of tremendous pathos and carnality in near equal measure.
Malo can plead with the best of ‘em—as he does on a cover of Rodney Crowell’s “’Til I Gain Control Again,” an emotionally charged highlight of Sinners & Saints—just as easily as he can seduce.
Much is being made of Malo producing this nine-track affair himself in his home studio, although he’s had a hand in steering the ship as far back as his solo debut, 2001’s Today. He’s careful to make these songs feel as diverse as possible, whether it’s the near-epic title cut, the politically-spiked “Living for Today,” the sparkling “Superstar” or the Spanish standard “Sombras.”
While enjoyable and intermittently gorgeous (the finale, a cover of Los Lobos’ “Saint Behind the Glass” is beautiful), the record doesn’t push Malo forward; it feels like a massive talent marking time. Sinners & Saints isn’t lazy, necessarily, but there’s hardly a single song—excepting the Crowell cover—that seems as though Malo couldn’t perform in his sleep.
An undercurrent of vitality is missing; Sinners & Saints often evokes what it really is: a record captured in pieces, in between family time and other obligations, instead of focused upon for a brief, intense period. Certainly, there’s no complaint that Malo is releasing music more quickly (barely 12 months between his last album and this one), but a judiciously edited, cohesive collection (fewer covers next time?) would feel more satisfying.
Although Sinners & Saints isn’t Malo’s sharpest work—again, pick up Lucky Onepost-haste if it isn’t on your shelf—it’s worth a spin for his fans.