Raul Malo: Marshmallow World fine holiday music!

Discussion in 'Music' started by Mike Knapp, Oct 17, 2007.

  1. Mike Knapp

    Mike Knapp Supporting Actor

    Aug 4, 1997
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    Maybe I am an odd bird, but I have no issue with listening to holiday music whenever I feel like it. I have a disc of holiday music by Mannheim Steamroller that gets good rotation at my place. We must not forget that holiday music is first and foremost…music! Now, I admit I get annoyed when the stores dress up for the holidays long before the holiday arrives. It gets my goat when the Christmas decorations share the store with Halloween decorations…and you can count on it happening every year. But I have no such issue with music. I can listen to the Blues when I feel great, I can soak up some Kraftwerk even though I am not in the mood to dance and I can listen to Barry White even when I am not looking for love. So, using that infallible logic, I can also listen to holiday music whenever I please.

    I could start by saying that Raul Malo has a wonderful voice, but you may know that already, I have beaten the Malo drum loudly enough on my webzine. I might also begin with what a wonderful song selection this holiday compilation has, but you can read the titles for yourself. So what I will say to begin this review is that this music is some of the finest holiday music ever put on disc.

    I'm sure that like me you have some favorite discs that make it into the CD player each year. There are the classics by Bing, Frank and Elvis and many more. So many in fact that it might be difficult to separate any particular holiday disc from the pack…any disc but this one that is. My yearly favorites include a disc by Manheim Steamroller and a funky disc called "Yule be boppin'" that has a great selection of Blue Note Records artists doing a kind of free form jazz Christmas album. It is hep, daddy-o. There is even a "beat poet" Christmas tale. Marshmallow World is going to join those as my go to albums when the fireplace finally gets lit (along with me after some eggnog).

    Marshmallow World is the follow up album to Malo's recently released "After Hours" and the two were likely recorded at the same time given their close release dates. But Marshmallow World is a little denser in its production. There are more instruments and a broader palette of sounds to be found here. Malo is listed as being one of the producers and engineers on Marshmallow World as well as providing the guitars, lead vocals and arranging skills, so he has taken a firm hold of the reigns controlling the "sound" of this recording. And he has done a fine job on all fronts. The arrangements are very skillfully executed and often quite unique.

    But the entire album is not an experiment. Malo stays put in solid ground on several of the songs allowing his voice to do the talking, so to speak. When he leaves the traditional arrangements intact, his voice alone gives the song a distinct enough flavor so that the song can be pegged as being his own, upon first listen. He mixes it up on many of the tunes surprising us with various tricks he has up his Guayabera shirtsleeves. Suffice it to say that I found the production nearly flawless with no distortion or overdriven instruments, and the spatial qualities were quite nice. The "fatter" sound of this recording is not overly cooked and all the instruments seem to have a good balance in their marshmallow world. It seems that Malo can twiddle the knobs with a good degree of precision.


    No single instrument sticks out and shouts at you. Malo's voice is a little more forward in the mix than on "After Hours" but not overly forward and I believe that a small boost was a good thing. The musicians are tight and the recording is full of life and energy. This sounds like a party that was recorded. It really does convey fun. I recorded some music in my youth, the studio is fun for a while, and then it becomes a labor. But this recording does not reflect any labor other than in the overall quality of the product. You'd never know these guys weren't having a ball the entire time…and maybe they were!

    First let's group the songs that got what I will call the "classic" treatment. These songs were pretty much left alone arrangement wise and have a classic holiday song sound. These songs would fit in anywhere and serve to remind us that a beautiful song, when sung incredibly well can be magic. The songs on Marshmallow World that fall into this group are Marshmallow World, Silent Night, and I'll be home for Christmas. If you want to get schooled on what a wonderful voice can do for a song, try one of these. They are spectacular. An odd aside, I had never heard Marshmallow World before. My family all knew it but after all these years on this rock I had not heard it. I love the flute and clarinet mixture. This is a great happy tune and it makes me smile.

    The other tracks are fascinating in their own right. Raul and his band, Robert Chevrier on piano and organ, Jim Hoke on reeds and other stuff, Tom Lewis on drums, John McTigue III on drums, Neil Rosengarden on trumpet, and Jay Weaver on various basses, are joined by all sorts of guests doing various musical chores. I believe the sleigh bells were worn out during this recording session.

    Not so Merry Christmas is an old Bobby Vee tune that has a very familiar guitar sound. If you loved the Mavericks sound this tune will give you a thrill. It feels like a comfortable old sweater hearing Raul's voice and this guitar sound together. The arrangement here sounds very much like a vintage Beach Boys tune. The guitar work at the fade is magnificent sounding with at least three guitars playing.

    Jingle Bells is a nice change with a really neat organ playing to a Texas shuffle beat. Malo mixes the vocals up a bit so that the song sounds fresh. That is a difficult task for a song so familiar. This song has the same "horn" sound found on "After Hours"…yes there are sleigh bells. Love the bongos as well. This has a jazz club feel to it. Dig it. The rollicking piano in the swingin' refrain" is a nice touch too. Listen to the last note Malo sings, it is not the note you expect. He hit that note and didn't flinch. That was sweet.

    White Christmas is one of my favorite tunes on the disc. What I first thought was finger snapping at further listening may actually be a wooden block being struck or maybe even a processed metronome. The wonderful walking bass line is complimented by a flute that I assume was produced by a keyboard because a flute is not credited on the liner notes and I cant hear any breath. So a synth flute, a snap and a nice walking double bass can produce a really groovy sound for Raul to work from. This is one of the better sounding vocal tracks on the record. This is probably due to the lack of other instrumentation. Sometimes less really is more. Yes, there are sleigh bells.

    Santa Claus is back in town is a classic Lieber-Stoller blues tune that Malo has played to the hilt. The naughty sound of a dirty dive of a strip joint out on the highway miles away from town. That about sums the sound of this tune up. The piano is featured here and the pounding of the keys is captured superbly. This type of a recording will remind you that the piano is a percussion instrument! This is a really bluesy version of the song. Elvis did it in a similar way, but Malo goes the extra yard to drive it home. Tom Lewis provides a steady backbeat for this raunchy blues number and as he does throughout the entire album, he keeps a perfect rhythmn for the rest of the band to play off. Good solid drumming throughout. Well done.

    Blue Christmas is another shuffle based tune and there are few surprises in the arrangement, save the fact that there is a pretty full sounding swing band complete with multiple backing vocalists. And yes, there are sleigh bells.

    Now we get to have some major fun. The album is winding down and the shirt tails come out. Let me tell you about Malo's version of Silver Bells…What is this? A Christmas tango? Why, yes it is…and it actually works! I must give major props to the arranger (who happens to be Malo) for this ingenious pairing of two unlikely musical styles. I read the song title and heard the tango and wondered "How is he going to pull this off?" After a few moments I found a poinsettia clenched in my teeth (can't tango with a rose to a Christmas song). Then, when the chorus hit I had to sit back down. Whoa! The Christmas tango has turned into a Louis Prima Christmas song, and Malo even does a few bars of scatting as the lead in. The chorus has the Prima "band shout out" going on. Malo will sing the key line and the band (with lots of room ambience on the vocals) will sing the line back. Back and forth they would go. Then, Shazam, the song goes back to the tango. But they close the song in the swinging Prima style and there is a sax solo by Jim Hoke that would fit on any Little Richard album you wanted to choose. The arrangement on this tune gets five huge stars from me.

    What can I say about Feliz Navidad? Although this tune sounded almost exactly like I thought it would, there is a hidden gem here. More on that in a moment. This is the last "official" cut on the album. As so, it was produced with a Christmas card flavor. The Mariachi horns were expected and I found them delightful. I always loved the brass section in the Maverick's music; it is nice to get a taste of it again. You get the Christmas card feeling from listening to the chorus. There are many voices there singing "I want to wish you a Merry Christmas from the bottom of my heart". A quick check of the liner notes will reveal that many people named Malo contributed to this chorus. Thanks, and Merry Christmas right back at you all.

    The hidden gem in this song is Jay Weavers bass playing. It is off the hizz-ook. Play the song and focus on just the bass line. Weaver is all over that neck like a Quarterback on a cheerleader. He must hit every note available in that key. What flow! This is full throttle bass playing done in a very skillful way. I just know he had the time of his life playing this song. The sound of the bass tells me he used an electric bass rather than the double bass (often called a standup). Toward the end of the song I would bet I can hear 1/32 notes! Yikes!

    Every time I have seen a bassist pull off this rapid fire playing they use the same method. I have never seen Weaver play the bass, but my minds image looks like this…the neck hand using all fingers except the thumb, which is used on the back of the neck. The index and pinky finger are used and even though a large range of notes are played, the left hand does not traverse the guitar neck as rapidly as you would imagine. But the magic is in the picking hand. Some bassists use their thumb, some use a pick, but this method requires the use of at least two fingers (usually the index and middle finger) on the pick hand. The bassist usually rests his thumb on the uppermost guitar pick-up (some basses will have a thumb board mounted on them) and uses both fingers in an alternating motion to pluck the strings. It is as mesmerizing to watch as it is to listen to. A tip of my hat to Jay Weaver is in order. And Malo works that whammy bar on his Fender Jaguar pretty well too!

    Clocking in at a scant 52 seconds and containing no vocals, Winter Wonderland has become one of my favorites on the album. It captures the "fun" factor like nobody's business.

    It is recorded in such a way as to sound like an old 78 rpm record. Each time I review a Malo album, I beg him to release some of his music on vinyl. Maybe this is as close as I am going to get. Ha! They even added some artificial "surface noise" to the recording. This simple little tune, played on a ukulele (courtesy of Jim Hoke) and whistled, is a bright point of sunshine on the album. The mental image is one of a carefree, happy soul walking in the snow, living in the moment, whistling a happy tune. It just makes you feel good, and I bet Malo felt great recording it. It felt totally spontaneous, and it works on that fantastic level. Any longer and it may have been tiresome. But this is just right. Perfect.

    The album ends with a live version of Blue Christmas.

    I am thrilled with the caliber of this recording and the material is grade A top choice music. The production values are audiophile grade. Mr. Malo has hit this one out of the park. If you like holiday music you NEED this disc in your collection. Malo has forever changed how I will hear some of these tunes. He has reset the yardstick and other artists will need to bring their best holiday game to play on the Malo field.

    I've got a feeeeever, and the only cure is more sleigh bells!

    Most highly recommended.


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