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(Mammoth 62443 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/21/2004)
It was during the 1990s that the term "roots rock" came to be bandied about, usually in reference to younger band who drew on some of rock's original influences: blues, folk music, and country. But one could argue that the roots rock movement could be traced back to Los Lobos, who first began to gain national attention in the 1980s. The band, however, had been together considerably longer than that, and now they have released what they have designated their 30th anniversary album, The Ride.
Formed by a group of Mexican-American friends and family originally as perform traditional Mexican folk music, Los Lobos soaked in all manner of musical influences, in a way so that they could get jobs playing different kinds of gigs. They released an independent EP in the late 1970s, then in 1984 appeared with How Will the Wolf Survive, their first full album on a major label. The record won great critical praise, and immediately showed the group's combination of eclecticism and musical integrity, easily moving among their wide-ranging stylistic interests. But the group's joyful eclecticism has tended to be an impediment to large-scale commercial success in a stylistically rigidly segmented commercial music market. They did have a hit in 1987 with their remake of a hit by another Latino performer, Richie Valens' La Bamba.
After that, as if to defeat any possibility of their having a mass-market hit, they did an album of traditional Latin American songs, La Pistola y el Corazon. Then after a worthy rock-oriented album in 1990, The Neighborhood they began a collaboration with sonically quirky producer Mitchell Froom that resulted in a couple of albums, beginning with Kiko, whose worthwhile music was undermined by the sonic experimentation that did not fit the band's rootsy persona.
Los Lobos went into temporary adjournment in the mid 1990s, before reuniting in 1999 to release Good Morning Aztlan in 2002, which marked a bit of a return to their more traditional sound.
For the band's 20th anniversary back in the early 1990s, they put together a kind of retrospective called Just Another Band from L.A. For their 30th anniversary, they decided to make an all-new recording and invite a whole bunch of guests to join them. The band's Steve Berlin writes that they were pleasantly surprised at the number of prominent performers who immediately agreed to appear when asked. So the CD has a notable roster, which again reflects the band's varying musical interests. The guests include Elvis Costello, English folk pioneer Richard Thompson, Gospel diva Mavis Staples, Latin standard-bearer Ruben Blades, and soul legend Bobby Womack. And some of the songs were writing collaborations with the guest artists, such as Womack, Blades and another guest vocalist Dave Alvin.
The result is one the of the best albums of this illustrious band's three-decade career. It's not so much the presence of the guest artists, but the overall integrity and seemingly unceasing affection for timeless musical ingredients that makes this CD as strong and memorable as it is. One of the most notable aspects of The Ride is that the band has finally gotten rid of the sonic eccentricities that undermined their recordings from the 1990s. It's just honest music that sounds as if it could have been recorded live.
In their CD booklet, the band includes a picture of themselves with a caption that says, seemingly with some degree of pride that Los Lobos are still Louie Pérez, Cesar Rosas, Conrad Lozano, David Hidalgo and Steve Berlin, who is the junior member of the group having joined during the early 1980s. They are supplemented on most of the CD by drummer Cougar Estrada, and frequent instrumental support is provided by keyboard man Garth Hudson of The Band.
In typical fashion for Los Lobos CDs, The Ride is rather diverse, with the eclecticism enhanced by the added guests. An example is the opening track of the generous 13-plus song CD, La Venganza de los Pelados, which features a whole Latin band Café Tacuba as guests. It brings the band back to its Latin American roots with a good helping of rock energy added. <<>>
Despite the list of guests on The Ride some of the CD's best tracks are with the band pretty much by themselves. Rita features a guest appearance by steel guitar player Greg Leisz, plus their former produced Mitchell Froom on keyboards. The song is an excellent example of the timeless music the band creates. It's a song that would have sounded great 30 or more years ago, and still has all the elements to make great rootsy rock. <<>>
Another long-time Los Angeles roots rocker, Dave Alvin, co-founder of the Blasters makes an appearance on a song he co-wrote with Louie Pérez and David Hidalgo, Somewhere In Time. The tune almost hints at country. It's interesting but not the CD's musical zenith. <<>>
On the other hand, the best collaboration on the album is with the great soul singer Bobby Womack, on the medley of Wicked Rain and Across 110th Street, co-written by Womack and Cesar Rosas. It's the CD's longest track, but it hardly seems it. Womack is in great form, and the band does its soulful best to provide the Motown-flavored accompaniment. The lyrics are straight out of the 1960s/70s civil rights-influenced soul scene. <<>>
The oddest collaboration is with Tom Waits along with one Martha Gonzales on the track Kitate, which translates as "get out of here." It was apparently an existing track, a bit of a jam, that the band sent to Waits who then added his parts. It's quirky but has its moments. <<>>
Another odd pairing is with Elvis Costello, who sings Matter of Time written by the band. Ballads have never been Los Lobos' strength, and while the lyrics are worthwhile, the country-influenced arrangement is full of clichés, and Costello did not seem to have his heart in it. <<>>
On the other hand, the pairing of Los Lobos with Rubén Blades is a natural. Ye Se Va is a definite highlight of the album, showing how Los Lobos can still play Latin music with the best. <<>>
An unexpected pairing turns out to be another of the CD's best all-around tracks. Blues and Gospel singer Mavis Staples is the guest vocalist on a song called Someday, by Pérez and Hidalgo. The lyrics are suitably righteous, and the band is in great form. <<>>
Los Lobos has become a kind of musical institution over the past 30 years. I guess any rock band that last that long with its original personnel could be called by that description. What makes Los Lobos more distinctive is that over the decades they have maintained their musical integrity, not content just to settle down and do more of what they're known for. And in fact, there isn't any one sound Los Lobos are known for. The group's eclecticism has in fact, several times undermined records companies' efforts to make them a commercial success. But they are happy to find their own musical direction, drawing on the wealth of influences that make up the American roots scene. Their new 30th anniversary album The Ride is one of the finest in the band's career. While the numerous musical provide added musical interest, credit for the album's artistic success goes to the band themselves for their tasteful backing and worthy songwriting.
Our grade for sound quality is about a B minus. The recorded sound is much better than some of their sonically quirky albums of the 1990s, but it's still rather one-dimensional, with everything compressed to be at the same loud volume, and at times the sound is a bit dull, though the mix does allow one to hear everything fairly well.
Having well-known guests on one's recording is not uncommon. What it rare is the way that Los Lobos has maintained their musical honesty over 30 years. At a time when most rock bands of their vintage are put out to the pasture of the nostalgia circuit, Los Lobos has made one of their best recordings ever.
(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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