A record full of beauty and pain and fear and hope by five guys who know what the hell they're talking about.
I got this CD a few months ago, and was astounded by how vital and fresh and deep it was. Hadn't Los Lobos turned into a boring jamband about 10 years ago? So this summer was largely a re-examination of this band, which I once loved more than maybe I should have. After all, How Will the Wolf Survive? was prime "let's get drunk" music in college, my wife and I fell in love to the La Bamba soundtrack, and I've been known to crank up our graphics department's copy of Kiko at work to get a project done. But what have I been missing by ignoring them since then?
Well, I'm ashamed to say that the answer is: a whole hell of a lot. It turns out, after my research into all their studio albums and box sets (man, I love the library system), that Los Lobos never fell off at all. The warm, rugged beauty in David Hidalgo's voice kept on delivering even after I stopped paying attention, and Louie Perez' lyrics on albums like Colossal Head and Good Morning Aztlan remained folk poetry of the highest order. The box set called El Cancionero: Mas y Mas has largely taken over my iPod, and I can even recommend 2004's The Ride, which celebrated their 30-year anniversary as a working band.
But forget all that history jazz for right now; let's get back to the record that sent me on my mission. The Town and the City is just as tight and adventurous as anything else coming out this year, a lean and hungry record full of beauty and pain and fear and hope by five guys who know what the hell they're talking about.
It starts out in atmospheric/psychedelic mode with "The Valley", a song full of swirling guitar sounds and a disorientingly circular structure in both its music and its words. We go from the founding of Los Lobos' beloved Los Angeles ("They seemed pleased with what they had found") to the present-day struggles of its people to keep "bread on the table" with no warning whatsoever. It is an epic beginning for what turns out to be an epic album.
Because a few songs after we visit "The Valley", we run right up against "The City". This is a grinding rock song full of unexpected bursts of be-bop chords built up over a beefy mambo beat, and it will take a lot longer than a summer for me to fully understand how it works. The talk is all about going out and celebrating, but in a threatening (and threatened) way: "Come on let's go out tonight / Shoot out all the neon lights". The freaky ambient noises and lengthy guitar explorations make this a pretty unreliable signpost on our journey.
In the meantime, we have come through a lot of different places and styles and moods. "The Road to Gila Bend" is a standout, a straightforward-seeming song with a revved-up guitar sound and a huge pop drumbeat with spooky lyrics about staying ahead of the law with four silver dollars and a mortal need to get to Tucson by the morning light. We never actually learn why this character is fleeing, but the disconnect between the words and the music is haunting -- and the solo is cool as hell. "Little Things" sounds like the Band covering "A Whiter Shade of Pale", but one chord change at the end of the first verse deepens it immensely.
Some of the blues stuff here is shockingly effective. "Hold On" rides Tchad Blake's mix into surreal territory, an appropriate place about a protagonist working himself into an early grave: "Killing myself just to stay alive / Killing myself to survive". "Two Dogs and a Bone," on the other hand, uses charm and guile to turn a childhood memory into a universal statement about, um, sharing.
But Los Lobos retain their ability to kick any Latin genre they choose. "Chuco's Cumbia" is tough and lovely, giving Steve Berlin the opportunity to blast a twisty-turny baritone sax solo. "No Puedo Mas" takes cumbia even further into dub territory, while "Luna" reaches further back into Mexican music's folk past. But even these tunes are darker and edgier than the band has seemed on their last couple of records.
Everything comes back home on the final track, "The Town". On its surface, it is a simple song about the lifelong effects of growing up in poverty; these effects are both negative (poverty) and positive (family cohesion, cultural identity). It combines rock and folk and Latin music, and its hushed tones are both lullaby and warning. Like "The Valley" and "The City", this song uses a sharp guitar tone and some out-there sonics to make itself bigger than it is, but it is already huge. In fact, "The Town" may be huge enough to be the definitive statement on what may be the definitive album of one of the most overlooked bands of our time.