It's so easy to take Los Lobos for granted. Some of their records have been better than others, but they've never made a bad one. A few, like Kiko or The Neighborhood, were even instant classics, remaining completely undimmed by the passage of time. Heck, their work on the La Bamba soundtrack was so stellar that some people still think they're nothing but a cover band. The band's excellence has been so uniform over the past 20 years -- both in Los Lobos and in offshoot projects like Houndog, Los Super Seven, and the Latin Playboys -- that it's easy to lose perspective on the matter. Case in point: Good Morning Aztlán may just be the best Los Lobos effort since '92's Kiko. It just takes you forever to realize it.
Why? Well, there's nothing on Good Morning Aztlán that Los Lobos hasn't done to perfection already. Bluesy rockers? Aztlán's title track fits comfortably alongside staples like "Georgia Slop", "Don't Worry Baby", or "I Walk Alone". Sweet soul tracks like the new "Hearts of Stone" is in a league with Los Lobos classics like "Angels with Dirty Faces", "When the Circus Comes", and "This Time". Latin-flavored numbers? Good Morning Aztlán has more than a few, none of which diminish the band's stellar traditional reputation one bit.
It's when you realize that, for the first time in a long time, these textbook pages from the Los Lobos playbook are all on the same album, that the unassuming Good Morning Aztlán starts to shine. The Los Lobos timeline is marked by a great album for each of their phases. La Pistola y El Corazon captures their traditional folk side, The Neighborhood cements their status as an unparalleled, bluesy bar band, and Kiko came out of the blue to show that Los Lobos possessed something totally new and original. In between those records, and especially after Kiko, Los Lobos has sometimes seemed ill at ease bringing so many disparate elements together. Good Morning Aztlán manages it almost to perfection.
For one thing, the sound is cleaner, free of the shimmery Mitchell Froomisms that made Kiko such a revelation, but which seemed out of place on parts of subsequent efforts like Colossal Head and This Time. New producer John Leckie (Kula Shaker, Radiohead) obviously knows how to trim away studio fat, and what comes out of the Aztlán sessions are often lean, no-nonsense examples of the Los Lobos style(s). "Hearts of Stone" sounds like an extension of the Marvin Gaye love vibe that's popped up in the Lobos catalog before. The title track is a fuzzed-out barnburner that's ridiculously catchy. The tracks that shine the most, though, are the traditional-tinged numbers like "Luz de Mi Vida", "Malaque", and "Tony y Maria". On these, Los Lobos retains just enough of their Kiko-flavored studio polish to indicate that they know how to take these Latin portraits into the new century. If you got to hear Los Super Seven's excellent sophomore disc, Canto, then you know how seductive this new sound can be.
A bonus disc rounds out initial printings of Good Morning Aztlán with two bonus live tracks: a funky take on "Can't Stop the Rain" and a squalling-guitars version of "Manny's Bones". They're both fun and a bit of a tease; the world is way overdue for a Los Lobos live disc. The bonus disc also promises a mini-documentary on the making of the album, but I wasn't able to access it.
All in all, Good Morning Aztlán is simply more of Los Lobos's established excellence. It doesn't hold any startling revelations like Kiko did, only a reminder that Los Lobos is as much on top of their game as they've ever been. We probably need that reminder -- that in a world of noisy one-hit wonders, fads, and next big things, that one of the best bands in America is quietly doing its thing.