In 1987, a bio-pic soundtrack cover of Ritchie Valens’ eternal Mexican-American party song elevated Los Lobos from solid popularity and lofty critical regard to a cultural institution with the potential of becoming a freeze-dried cliché. While putting the Southern California quintet on the fast track, “La Bamba” nearly drove them into a narrow and unwarranted oldies rut. But anyone who presumed Los Lobos would accept a vapid sinecure as a Spanish- singing Beach Boys had sorely underestimated them. Los Lobos’ mission, it turned out, was to become a living repository of soulful American music as it has taken root in New Orleans, Chicago, Memphis, California and elsewhere. If that makes them something of a reincarnation of Little Feat, so be it.
The four Mexican-American East Los Angelenos (Cesar Rosas, Louie Pérez, Conrad R. Lozano and David Hidalgo) plus ex-Blaster saxman and producer Steve Berlin, who joined in time for the second Slash record, are peerless masters of a wide range of musics. They smoothly incorporate early rock’n’roll, jazz, rockabilly, norteño, blues, R&B, Tex-Mex canciones — into a colorful patchwork. That they have continually challenged themselves to try new realms is always commendable, even if the results have been, to say the least, mixed.
Los Lobos self-released the traditional Just Another Band From East L.A. in 1978 but didn’t gain national attention until the seven-song …and a time to dance appeared in ’83. From a sharp cover of Ritchie Valens’ “Come On, Let’s Go” to the infectious, accordion-powered “Let’s Say Goodnight,” singer/guitarist Hidalgo leads a spicy romp (in two languages) back and forth across musical borders few can traverse with such ease.
How Will the Wolf Survive? is an occasionally more serious venture, delving into heavy blues (“Don’t Worry Baby”) and tender social commentary (“Will the Wolf Survive?,” subsequently a country hit for Waylon Jennings) as well as finding time for a jolly square dance (“Corrida #1”) and an airy instrumental (“Lil’ King of Everything”). Hidalgo’s plaintive tenor and the group’s subtlety and skill make the album immediately likable; depth and variety ensure its enduring pleasure.
Poised on the brink of major stardom, Los Lobos stopped to make a limp mainstream album, By the Light of the Moon. Under the usually reliable production direction of T-Bone Burnett, the maturing band sheds its richly complex musical personality for a hodgepodge of assimilationist easy-listening crap and ill-advised stylistic dilettantism. “Prenda del Alma,” a traditional Spanish ballad, seems horribly (and ironically) out of place; the gritty “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes,” co-written by Burnett and guitarist Cesar Rosas, belongs on a Blasters record; “Set Me Free (Rosa Lee)” is a brassy mess with synth drums. Only “My Baby’s Gone,” a fine Chicago blues, suggests life in the grooves, but it’s not enough to salvage the record.
The obvious choice to re-create the music for La Bamba, a simple-minded bio-pic about the Mexican-American teenager’s brief life and career, Los Lobos faithfully and enthusiastically recorded the highlights of his slim repertoire and vaulted into the pop stratosphere. The skidillion-selling La Bamba album contains their renditions of “La Bamba,” “Come On, Let’s Go,” “We Belong Together,” “Donna” and four more; Brian Setzer (aping Eddie Cochran) and Marshall Crenshaw (finally succumbing to the temptation to play Buddy Holly) each contribute a track as well.
After that massive success, Los Lobos (consigning Berlin to a minimal role) returned to far more substantial music, and a different sort of nostalgia, by making a consciously uncommercial (at least for the American pop audience) acoustic album in Spanish. Recorded and mixed in five days, the brief La Pistola y el Corazón wraps the band’s warm and enthusiastic embrace around traditional canciones and suitable originals. Except for Hidalgo’s sickly violin playing on the instrumental “(Sonajas) Mañanitas Michoacanas,” La Pistola is as delightful to hear as it must have been therapeutic to record.
Thusly recharged, Los Lobos made an about-face and wanged out The Neighborhood, an amazingly varied and great rock’n’roll record free of any Latin flavor whatsoever. Aided by John Hiatt, Levon Helm and Jim Keltner, the quintet laces into a blistering boogie snake (“I Walk Alone”), a swampy Little Feat-styled rocker (“Down on the Riverbed”), a pulsing Chicago blues co-written by the legendary Willie Dixon (“I Can’t Understand”), a twisting oldie (Jimmy McCracklin’s “Georgia Slop”) and a twisting original (“Jenny’s Got a Pony”). They also downshift effectively for semi-acoustic love songs (“Emily,” “Take My Hand”), a tender lullaby (“Little John of God”) and a visit to Johnny Cash country (“Deep Dark Hole”). Exciting, evocative and highly satisfying.
From there, Los Lobos delivered Kiko, a handsome but diffident gumbo-spiced album of disappointingly weak material, followed by a deep and valuable career compilation. The former, a predominately acoustic outing that recalls the Band in its artfully dull dotage, rises to atmospheric heights in the vivid and moving “Kiko and the Lavendar Moon” but otherwise settles for studio presentation over solid content: the bluesy swagger of “That Train Don’t Stop Here,” the bluegrass inflections of “Two Janes,” the flagrant distortions of “Wicked Rain,” the jazzy piano inventions of “Just a Man” and the Dixieland brass band of “Rio de Tenampa.”
The two-disc, two-and-a-half-hour, 41-cut Just Another Band From East L.A.: A Collection — not to be confused with the long-lost indie record of boleros and rancheras with which the band made its folky debut (although three tracks from that record are included here for history’s sake) — fills in the gaps and amplifies the creative breadth of Los Lobos’ astonishingly eclectic oeuvre. The selection of album cuts is basically right on, except for the miscalculation that short-sells The Neighborhood, omitting the ferocious snake boogie of “I Walk Alone,” “Georgia Slop” and “Little John of God.” Otherwise, there are a couple of outtakes, the essential soundtrack contributions (the treatment of La Bamba is noteworthy: only two of the band’s eight tracks appear here) and a handful of live numbers, including a vintage-sounding replay of Cream’s “Politician,” a subtle and sensitive ’92 reading of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and a version of the Grateful Dead’s “Bertha” (from the same tour) that suggests a dismaying element in the band’s current mindset.
During the long gap between albums, Hidalgo and drummer/singer Pérez — the band’s primary songwriters — convened the Latin Playboys, a studio quartet with Tchad Blake and Mitchell Froom, producers/musicians making instrumental contributions. The group’s self-titled first album is so fully realized that it sounds like the work of an actual band. (In a way, it is. Froom produced Kiko and Colossal Head; Blake engineered them.) On Latin Playboys, the foursome explores the off-kilter sonic territory Los Lobos ventured into on Kiko. If the Playboys lack the raw roots-rock energy of Los Lobos, the album has a loose, experimental feel, and its Latin-tinged avant-garde soundscapes are just as powerful in a more subtle way. Unclassifiable and unbelievably beautiful.
An entirely different side of Los Lobos emerges on Papa’s Dream. Lalo Guerrero and his little friends tell and act out a delightful kids’ story, with music by Los Lobos. The mix of Mexican folk songs and American rock’n’roll tunes (“La Bamba” is rendered twice, in its traditional form and an electric variation) is utterly engaging, and helps propel the heartwarming tale of a blimp ride to Mexico. Educational and entertaining for children of all ages.
Barely overdue according to Los Lobos’ unhurried recording timetable, the modest, lazy and good-natured Colossal Head arrived nearly four years after Kiko. Maintaining that album’s range of sounds (and not just in Froom’s prominent and unmistakable drum tone) as well as its slipshod songwriting, Colossal Head sets Kiko‘s artiness (like the vintage-styled Latin dance jazz of “Maricela” and the wah-wah atmosphere of “Little Japan”) against echoes of The Neighborhood‘s let-it-rip raucousness: the live- sounding “Mas y Mas” is pretty much an excuse to crank up a bucketload of guitar soloing. (The album-ending instrumental, “Buddy Ebsen Loves the Night Time,” further contributes to the filler feel.) This time, though, the diverse stylistic menu shifts in and around a core having to do with the acceptance of middle age. (And beyond: “Manny’s Bones” offers a conciliatory view of death.) “Too tired, too tired sister, to hold my fist so high” — the resignation of “Revolution” matches the serene groove in which the album’s opening number conducts its business. Meanwhile, over the steady sound of a ride cymbal that has to be about a yard across, the lethargic, party-vibing “Life Is Good” announces the band’s personal satisfaction with such eminent conviction that you have to wonder where to sign up for some of whatever they’re having. Mining simple pleasures, Colossal Head nearly makes standing still sound like progress.