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There is a very fine line between what makes an album of cover tunes work while another may fail. The new album by the Mavericks — called simply Play The Hits — is one of those good albums of songs not written by the artists recording and performing them — one that works start to finish.
It works in part because the band is so inside this music that they take ownership of the songs, bringing their own flavor to the arrangements and underlying performances. In some ways The Mavericks’ Play The Hits is a sort of 21st Century, roots-Americana twist on one of the first great cover albums in rock history, David Bowie’s Pinups.
Like Bowie, the driving force investing so much into these performances is lead singer Raul Malo, who sings with such effortless, immersive joy on Play The Hits you can’t help but flow with him. You may even get up out of your Barcalounger to dance around the room a bunch!
Credit must also go to Mavericks as a band, a group which has that special cohesion that can only come from playing together for so many years… and they are on tour now celebrating 30 of them! It is a unique glue binding groups such as Bruce Springsteen’s E-St. Band and Neil Young’s Crazy Horse. Sure there are occasional member changes but the core of the group has a particular aesthetic that is palpable.
Speaking of Springsteen, one of the surprise centerpieces of this album is an unlikely cover of The Boss’ mega-hit “Hungry Heart” and the real genius lies in the arrangement here. While Bruce used early 1960s girl group stylings — as produced by Phil Spector — as a template for his hit, the Mavericks take things back several years to the late 1950s with a swinging stroll-flavored arrangement that works in its own right. Again this is one of those moments where the band figured out a way to take ownership of a song that is so ingrained in our consciousness in a particular form and un-freeze it out from beneath those ties that bind. This breaks out the underlying song for broader interpretation by others.
Now I don’t claim to know all the songs on this album in terms of who did what but there are some big names represented here.
Featured on the first singles from the album are Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” and Freddy Fender’s version of “Before The Next Teardrop Falls.”
“I’m Leaving It All Up To You” was originally done by the great Don & Dewey — a group which later featured the great Don “Sugarcane” Harris, who (by the way) later played with no less than Frank Zappa covering Little Richard’s “Directly From My Heart To You.” “I’m Leaving It All Up To You” was also a #1 hit by Dale and Grace in 1963 (trivia detailing thanks to the Wikipedia!)
Curiously enough, Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel ” is perhaps my least favorite track on the album, possibly because I am just so familiar with the original.
That said, it sure would be great if someone would put together a playlist of all those original versions of the songs alternating against The Mavericks’ new interpretations so we could hear them back to back. The The did something like that to promote its mid-90s Hank Williams tribute album Hanky Panky to radio (click here to see that).
I have been listening to The Mavericks Play The Hits on a fine sounding CD, especially in the car. But, if you want a bigger listening experience, you really should pick up the LP version. It is pressed on dark, quiet 180-gram vinyl and the music just opens up a whole lot more. Suddenly there is a bass and midrange presence that is less apparent on the CD. Raul Malo’s voice sounds richer and the band fuller. When the handclaps come in during the first solo on “Swingin'” they jump out of the speakers and the bass notes are more distinct. I had a similar experience when contrasting versions of “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.”
I suspect you’ll find The Mavericks Play The Hits on Tidal and Qobuz. I checked out some of the pre-release singles there in 16-bit, 44.1 kHz fidelity and they sound quite good — like the CD, in some ways with a brighter high end and a tad less mid-range and low-end detail than I hear on the LP version.
Of course this is not a pure hard-science, apples-to-apples comparison so your experience may well vary. My Music Hall MMF 7.1 turntable is run through a nice little Bellari tube preamp. My CD player is a now-vintage Oppo BDP-83 Universal Player which may not compare as favorably to the processors in the Brooklyn Mytek DAC that I use for streaming music from my MacBook Pro. So consider my views here a rough guide and make your own judgements.
Any way you hear it, The Mavericks’ Play The Hits is a fun winner you’ll play a whole bunch.
Now I have to go back and listen to their 2017 album Brand New Day which I somehow missed along the way. If you are curious about some of The Mavericks’ other albums I have reviewed a couple of them previously here on Audiophile Review. Click on the titles following to read about Mono (which is really mixed in Monaural sound!) and All Night Live.
The Mavericks are a fun band worth digging down deeper into their catalog which you’ll find handily streaming on Tidal and Qobuz — a good way to test run the music before investing in a more permanent version for your collection on LP or CD. Have fun!
The Mavericks’ Play The Hits is out on Friday, November 1. If you are looking for upbeat, feel-good music with a deep rocking-blues-country-pop roots, you’ll want this.