SOME ARTISTS CAN TRAVEL LIGHT-YEARS OUT OF their original orbit and still return home. So it is with Los Lobos.
Founded in 1973 by four graduates of Garfield High in East L.A. — David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, Louie Perez and Conrad Lozano — Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles began life as a traditionalist Mexican-American folk band; they cut an otherworldly figure when, in 1980, in their first appearance outside East L.A., they brought the bajo sexto, guitarrón and requinto to the stage of the Olympic Auditorium, plucking out rancheras to a crowd of hostile punks as an incongruous opening act for Public Image Ltd. About a year later, known simply as Los Lobos, they began to hit the L.A. punk clubs, showing off a different aspect of their roots: the blues, R&B and rock & roll they grew up on as teens. They hit the big time in 1987, when the band's soundtrack for the Ritchie Valens biopic, La Bamba, went double-platinum and spawned a No. 1 single (the group's cover of Valens' titular hit — which went to only No. 22 when it was released in 1958).
Through most of this decade, the Lobos have eschewed both Mexican folk and American roots rock for a sound that incorporates those styles into a matrix of what can only be called magical realism. In the company of co-producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, the band unleashed two albums, Kiko (1992) and Colossal Head (1996), that moved far beyond the straightforward music they had previously made to create an opulently produced, outré sort of Hispanic surrealism; one has to conjure the names of boundary-pushing Latin artists in other media — Buñuel, Borges, García Márquez — for adequate artistic comparisons.
The Lobos' music of the '90s was a thing to be cherished, but most listeners must have thought the band had left the planet permanently; the sales of Kiko and Colossal Head were a fraction of those of La Bamba, and two years ago the group parted company with Warner Bros., which had released their music since 1984. A new album, This Time, is scheduled for release in mid-June by Disney's Hollywood Records. In the intervening time, Rosas, Hidalgo and Perez recorded side projects that plumb the fertile sources of Los Lobos' origins in various and frequently surprising ways.
The albums are all, to some degree, homemade. Rosas' Soul Disguise, the singer-guitarist's solo debut, was recorded at CRG Studios, the facility he built in his Rowland Heights house. Houndog, the first album by the same-named duo of Hidalgo and Mike Halby, a veteran of the L.A. blues-rock unit Canned Heat, was cut in a makeshift studio next to the kitchen in Halby's house. And Dose, the second album by Latin Playboys — an archexperimental combine of Hidalgo, Perez, Froom and Blake — had its genesis in home tapes made by Hidalgo and fitted with lyrics by Perez.
Rosas has always been the Lobos' most conservative member, musically speaking; the songs he wrote and performed on Kiko and Colossal Head, like “That Train Don't Stop Here” and “Maricela,” were islands of roots devotion amid an explosion of fabulist lab work. So it comes as no shock that Soul Disguise is the most straight-ahead and easily assimilated of the band's side projects. Working with such familiars as Lobos sideman Victor Bisetti on drums, Nervis Bros. keyboardist Eddie Baytos on Hammond B-3 organ, and Tex-Mex accordionist Flaco Jimenez (who recorded with Rosas and Hidalgo last year as a member of the all-star border band Los Super Seven), Rosas settles in comfortably on 12 original numbers drawn from the Mexican and American styles that have served as the backbone of his main band's sound for 26 years.
Both “Little Heaven” and “Racing the Moon” bear a resemblance to vintage Dave Alvinpenned tunes for the Blasters (with the latter number much akin to Jerry Lee Lewis' early stomper “End of the Road”); “E. Los Ballad #13” is a swooner that would have played fine nestled up against any '50s R&B heartbreaker on the old KRLA; “Struck” rides a spicy New Orleans second-line march; “Shack and Shambles” is '60s-derived soul with a touch of funk; and “Angelito” and “Adios Mi Vida” look back at the Lobos' Mexican folk ancestry. Rosas' pungent vocal style and muscular guitar chops are shown off to best advantage on the title cut, which features a couple of instrumental solos that compellingly fuse Otis Rush and Jimi Hendrix. Listeners who began to lose track of Los Lobos with Kiko will probably find Soul Disguise the most immediately satisfying of these current albums; it's meat-and-potatoes roots music that delivers the goods.
HOUNDOG IS, TO PUT THINGS AT THEIR SIMPLEST, A blues record, but one filtered through the sensibility that Hidalgo, who produced the album, brought to the Lobos' last two studio albums and to the Latin Playboys. The sound is eerily simple, kitchen-sink plain, with brush strokes of strangeness creeping into the margins of the mix. Hidalgo himself stands in the background, supplying the occasional harmony vocal, some understated guitar work and bristling fiddle playing (and maybe even the uncredited, highly primitive drum work). The spotlight belongs to singer Halby, who is responsible for the record's considerable emotional impact. He has a voice that's a special effect in itself: Grittily slurred and supernaturally deep, it sounds like it's the product of a turntable that's been turned off in midplay. (Some of this is the result of production chicanery, but it's weirdly real most of the time.)
Halby applies this remarkable device to seven originals, alongside one instrumental and one cover, that add up to one of the great masochistic performances in recent blues history. The absolute killer is the duo's version of Junior Parker's “Change My Style”; Halby's anguished, supplicating vocals (which he sings call-and-response style, double-tracked in the left and right channels), taken at a gruelingly slow, subJimmy Reed tempo, are complemented by tear-soaked fiddle work in the manner of Don “Sugarcane” Harris. His attack on most of the other numbers is similarly pain-racked; just the song titles alone — “No Chance,” “I Brought the Rain,” “Lonely Dying Love,” “Somebody (Stop the Bleedin)” and the finale, “Killin' Me” — are indicative of the mind-scoring hurt that infects every cut here. For sheer profundity of feeling, it's hard to beat Houndog's debut howl.
DOSE REVISITS THE SOUNDS AND THE CONCERNS THAT animated the Latin Playboys' 1994 eponymous debut. Sonically, it's so delirious it makes the later Lobos albums sound like the work of Walter Afanasieff. Virtually every track is slathered with distortion; tape speeds wobble and wail; instruments are dumped abruptly into the mix and just as quickly excised; each vocal is treated for maximum lunar effect. One short instrumental, the blues shuffle “Tormenta Blvd.,” plays through only one speaker — I found myself jiggling the wires in the back of my amplifier in a vain attempt to kick the left channel to life.
Like its predecessor, Dose bears the cover legend “El Disco Es Cultura,” and the album's principal objective may lie in the answer to a question posed by the narrator of the title song: “What happens to a kid . . . when he grows up brown?” Even more explicitly than the first Latin Playboys opus, the current record explores the internal meaning of Latino life through a musical prism that richly refracts traditional music. But, as the Playboys caution to a “Low Rider” beat, “Don't go figure, it's not about hip/You won't get it, it's a Latin trip.”
The East L.A. experience unfolds like a dream history in Perez and Hidalgo's songs. “Cuca's Blues” follows the long-ago romantic adventures of a neighborhood woman who rides the Red Cars to the downtown clubs. The best track, “Ironsides,” is a generational/cultural minidrama that pits a mother and father, who want to take the family truck to the drive-in, against their children, who are mortified by the prospect of watching the movie from the truck bed (“Mom, can't we take Lily's Celica, we can all fit,” one futilely pleads); the argument is set against a blaring bolero that sounds like it's issuing from a cheap car radio. Another delightful number, “Paletero,” is a raucous two-step celebration of the itinerant vendor, familiar in any Latino community in L.A., who sells flavored cones of shaved ice from his cart. The bells of the paletero's wagon are the last sound one hears on the album, as the traditional instruments played on “Paula y Fred” fade away.
Dose is the most accomplished, deep and dazzling of these new releases, but each album, in its fashion, affords a bracing view of Los Lobos' grand artistic odyssey — a trip to the moon via Whittier Boulevard.
HOUNDOG | Houndog | (Columbia/Legacy)
CESAR ROSAS | Soul Disguise | (Rykodisc)
LATIN PLAYBOYS | Dose | (Atlantic)