Not many bands make it to the thirty-year mark, and of those that do, fewer still make it with any vitality intact. Los Lobos are the rare exception.
True, the band seems to have been in a holding pattern recently, what with a record focused on collaborations (2004’s The Ride, a covers EP (The Ride‘s accompanying Ride This disc), and a live album (2005’s Live at the Fillmore) — oh, and a best-of disc earlier this year. But their latest, The Town and the City, stands as one of the band’s best efforts, even if the band’s success initially works against them.
The “problem” with Los Lobos, at this point, is that they’ve basically spoiled us, making it easy to take them for granted. Fourteen years past what will probably stand as their watershed moment, 1992’s Kiko, Los Lobos have continued mining a rich vein of traditional forms, rock, experimentation, and soulful lyricism. If efforts like Colossal Head and This Time seemed like weaker efforts, it’s largely because Kiko left little room for improvement (and yeah, maybe because, here and there, the experimentation didn’t always coalesce into solid songs).
So when you listen to The Town and the City, it’s tempting to call the album more of the same: Los Lobos doing what they do in their typical unassuming manner. There aren’t any songs that initially seem like they’re going to dethrone “Just a Man”, “I Walk Alone”, “Mas y Mas”, or “Kiko and the Lavender Moon” as Los Lobos classics — just one solid song after another.
After a bit, though, the record’s darker feel begins to make itself known. “The Valley” tells of those who “work through the day for as long as we are able”; the backing arrangement has a gentle, pastoral lope, but a keening guitar line arcs through, sometimes cutting into the foreground, as if to underscore the hardscrabble life depicted in the song. “Hold On” goes it one better, backing lyrics like “Hold on to every breath / And if I make it sunrise, do it all over again / Now I’m killin’ myself just to keep alive / Killin’ myself to survive” with a measured rhythm, like a clock ticking towards the end of a long day. “The Road to Gila Bend”, with overloaded electric guitar crackling like it’s hooked to an amp via an electric fence, tells the tale of a breakneck run across the border.
At this point, three songs in, it sounds like Los Lobos might be making an album specifically about immigration. But by album’s end, it sounds like they’re more concerned with the equally complicated experience of simply living, whether it’s in a small village “back home” or in an American city — really, the same themes they’ve been addressing since The Neighborhood and before. The snarling guitar bounce of “Two Dogs and a Bone” accompanies a mother’s practical advice to her two sons, while the wistful “Little Things”, full of regret over lost focus in modern times, simultaneously evokes Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”. “The City”, decorated with broad, cosmopolitan chord progressions and sonic swirls, follows the sentiment of “c’mon let’s go out tonight” through never-sleeping nighttime streets.
The disc closes, though, with “The Town”, which may turn out to be one of Los Lobos’ very best tracks. A counterpoint to the evening adrenaline of “The City”, “The Town” opens with gunshots in the city night, and the narrator’s conviction that things are better back home, a place he sees whenever he closes his eyes. It’s evocative enough on its own, especially as a conclusion to an album this strong, but the lead guitar work puts it over the top. A nuanced, fluid mixture of sympathethic chords, jazzy double-stops, and bluesy wails, it’s perhaps the best Los Lobo guitar work since “Just a Man”‘s solo sounded like the band were opening up actual veins in order to let the torment out.
If you’ve kind of let your attention to Los Lobos slide, The Town and the City marks the perfect opportunity to get back into the fold. With every passing year, it seems like the band is less and less interested with peeling the pain from the roadhouse walls, but with age and wisdom comes something subtler, and just as long-lasting.