About the worst thing you can say about Los Lobos is that they might have gotten distracted for a couple of albums. 1992’s landmark Kiko was a near-perfect blend of the established Los Lobos sound — steeped in ’50s and ’60s rock and soul, incorporating elements of Hispanic culture — and something new and ethereal. With the help of Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, the songs on Kiko sounded like they always had two layers: one that was immediate and earthy, and one with just a shade of dreamy distance. On followups Colossal Head and This Time, you could argue that the band began to favor how a record sounded over its heart. If so, the band quickly righted the ship with the straightahead rock of 2002’s Good Morning Aztlan. Since then, the band have continued to indulge in their love of side projects, and have kept the Los Lobos catalog full with live recordings, a covers record, a release of Disney songs, and one other disc of new material, 2006’s The Town and the City.
The Town and the City was a revelation, but not because it revealed anything unknown about the band. The album didn’t contain anything we hadn’t heard from Los Lobos before, but it was a reminder of just how fluid and graceful the band could be. Its songs felt relaxed and comfortable in a way the band hadn’t sounded since before Kiko. Their latest disc, Tin Can Trust continues that tradition. Overflowing with songs about people facing adversity — be it financial, spiritual, romantic, whatever — Tin Can Trust is soulful. Whether it’s the brooding low-end groove of “Burn it Down” (featuring guest vocals from Susan Tedeschi), the jangly clatter of “Main Street”, or the epic squall of “Bridges Burning”, the songs on Tin Can Trust are uniformly excellent and right.
In much the same way that The Town and the City served notice that the Los Lobos groove was a fine place to be, and that few could pull it off like Los Lobos themselves, Trust shows that for a band going into its fourth decade, Los Lobos haven’t lost any fire. Cesar Rosas and David Hidalgo unleash one scorching guitar solo after another (with tone to die for) and never overplay their hands. Steve Berlin’s trademark saxophone, as always, comes in at just the right moments. The band as a whole (anchored by bassist Conrad Lozano and drummer Louie Perez ) clicks right along with comfortable, well-worn chemistry.
The shimmer that was born on Kiko isn’t lost, though. It pops up in places like “Main Street” and the stately “Jupiter or the Moon”, but now it sounds like its in the service of the song, instead of the other way around.
If this all sounds gushy, then that’s just the way it’ll have to be. For this rock fan, there are few bands with as much to offer as Los Lobos. They still sound like the same band that was covering standards like “Lonely Avenue” and “I Got Loaded” back in the day, and providing the soundtrack to La Bamba, but at this point, it’s all rolled up into a distinctive Los Lobos sound. And that’s just on the rock side. Their traditional side, represented here by songs like the norteño “Mujer Ingrata” and the cumbia “Yo Canto”, may hold the same appeal for fans of those styles; this listener doesn’t have the background to say.
Listening to a Los Lobos album is a bit like walking down the streets of a neighborhood, with a different kind of music spilling out of every doorway. So when street and crowd sounds begin to filter into “Main Street” it sounds perfectly natural, in the same way a song like Beck’s “Qué Onda Guero” sounded like it was born in concrete and summer heat. In fact, looking back at Los Lobos’ catalog and realizing how many songs bask in the comfort of home, it looks more and more like the seminal Los Lobos record might not be the much-celebrated Kiko. Instead, it might just be 1990’s The Neighborhood, which found Los Lobos not only fusing together their disparate influences for the first time, but which also shone a light on the trials and triumphs of the people around them. If Tin Can Trust feels like an extension of that, it’s not a sign that chroniclers like Los Lobos haven’t grown, but that the world around us doesn’t change as much as we’d like it to.