After hours. The words have a wonderful ring to my ears. Overstuffed red and black leather, drinks that go clink, blinking neon, the stuff closing times are made of. A good lounge is like a good song, neither bound by or defined completely by their shabbiness, but something greater than their parts alone. A good lounge is like a black hole, where things opposed live together in the same time and space. Happy and sad. A place where things get weird as time and space twist. Happy to be sad. I’m reminded of the quote, “With great sorrow comes laughter and with great joy comes tears.” This should be tacked up along side the other great bar room quotes,“Sorry, we do not serve women, you must bring your own.” and “Everyone who enters this place makes us happy. Some when they arrive. Some when they leave.”and “If you’re drinking to forget, please pay in advance!”
All good after hour joints have one thing in common. A really good jukebox. Now, not all jukeboxes are created equal, as you must agree, and the care put into their placement and look, and most importantly, their guts, can define the style of a bar. For instance, if you walk into a dimly lit place that has a pleasing dinginess about it, and then see the Eagles Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 & 2 on their jukebox, you know immediately you’re in trouble and should move on with all godspeed. Don’t the let the proverbial knob hit ya, so to speak. Now, if instead you see an early Kenny Rogers album you know one of two things is true, and both are good. Number one, the bar has a sense of humor. Number two, the bar hasn’t changed the music on its jukebox since since the 1970s and there’s bound to be loads of other good stuff on it (a word of caution however: a little bit of knowledge can go a long way. Ask your tender how long the bar’s been around – The Gambler; 1978, yay! Islands in the Stream – 1983, Boo!).
Now, I turn my wandering attention to a classic barroom album. At some point, hopefully, I’ll come back to this topic and render unto Ceasar regarding Ray Price’s Night Life and Frank Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours, but for now I have on my mind Raul Malo’s wonderful lush record After Hours. Malo, who spent most of the ’90s channeling Roy Orbison in front of one of the decades best bands, The Mavericks, has gone solo and mostly forsaken his country roots in favor of string arrangements and choral backdrops. If you’re a hard country apologist whose skin crawls at the very mention of those words, you’ll get no sympathy from me. I love many of the countrypolitan records of the ’60s and ’70s and am not ashamed to admit it. On this record, Malo has crafted one of the finest records in the past few years, largely by covering some very well known country songs and lifting them out of their normal confines. He reinvigorates them, and my but they do shine up pretty.
After Hours is not a particularly long album, but it’s about pitch perfect. The opener, Jim Reeves’ classic, Welcome To My World, is so sad and melancholy I find my shoulders hunching and can almost feel the cool condensation on my fingers from my gin and tonic glass. The lights have officially dimmed. Malo tackles some of the barroom biggies here. Kris Kristofferson’s lament, For the Good Times, a song so great, a song that says everything so perfectly right it never needs to be said again. Buck Owens is here and Fred Rose and Hank Williams, but, for me at least, I was surprised to see Dwight Yoakam’s Pocket of a Clown. Now, here is a song, the fourth one in, just about the time the drinks are starting to do what they’re meant to do, that sounds so much like the beginnings of happily slurred speech and the promise of outlandish stories to surely come that I grin everytime it begins. Dwight pops up again five songs later with It Only Hurts When I Cry, a tune he wrote with the impenetrable Roger Miller and has one of the great kick off lines of all time, “The only time I feel the pain, is in the sunshine or the rain.” Miller has the distinction of being the only other writer covered twice on the album with Husbands and Wives, arguably the only true to form country song Malo did for the album and a heartbreaker if there ever was one. “Some can, and some can’t. And some can’t.” It’s a devastating line that, to quote Harlan Howard, sums up a good country song with three chords and the truth. But, aren’t there two Hank Williams songs here as well? Yes, and no. Only Cold, Cold Heart was written by Hank. Take These Chains From My Heart is a Fred Rose song, and here Malo is thinking more Brother Ray than Ol’ Hank with its pulsing rhythm and the tune which finishes off the album acts like the water chaser to a stiff drink. Cold, Cold Heart is interesting in that it was one of Tony Bennett’s early hits, and from the stories told of how many coins Hank fed into jukeboxes to hear Tony sing his song, I’d have to think he’d get a real quick out of Malo’s slurry rave up version. It swings fast and hard, and the words come at us more like muscle memory than true annunciation. You Can Depend On Me is the one tune on the album I mostly associate with a woman, Brenda Lee. Lee, who, for some completely wrong reason, is typically placed in the same corner with saccharine crooner Pat Boone, nails this song like a martyr waiting to be remembered. Patsy wasn’t the only country pop crossover artist. Filling out the album is the ultra loungey cover of (Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such As I and Crying Time. Buck’s tune is an inspired choice, Elvis’s, however, is about as obvious as Roy Orbison, but as the album proves and critic Mark Deming says better than I, “rather than treat these tunes as relics from Nashville’s noble past, Malo honors them as standards — object lessons in great songwriting — and interprets them as swinging pop tunes or polished late-night supper club laments.”
Malo did a follow-up of sorts in the guise of a Christmas Album, Marshmallo World, but I like to think of it as a prequel. After the hot buttered rum has been knocked back and the guests have left and the Christmas tree has been unplugged, you may feel a tinge of the blues. Maybe it’s cold outside and you want some more music while you pour. After Hours is the perfect tonic for a blue, blue Christmas.