Roots Music With An Electronic Shimmer

Sharps and Flats is a daily music review.

By James Marcus

Published April 22, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Throughout the first decade of its existence, Los Lobos was the classiest roots band around, tossing blues, country, R&B, and norteqo into an irresistible mix. Their shows were blistering events -- it's a puzzle, in fact, that they haven't yet cut a live set -- and on their records, there didn't seem much for a producer to do but roll the tape. This phase of their career culminated with "La Pistola Y El Corazon," an all-acoustic program that anticipated the "unplugged" craze by several years.
With "The Neighborhood" in 1990, however, the band started to
monkey more extensively with their recordings. With Mitchell Froom (Elvis Costello, Crowded House) at the board, the sound got trickier, less naturalistic. And by the time Los Lobos released "Kiko" in 1992, their transformation into a studio creature was complete. Most of the songs on this marvelous disk seemed to be encased in an electronic shimmer, which made you wonder exactly how they would fare in front of a live audience.
Now comes "Colossal Head," which combines the best of both worlds. The production is more detailed and eccentric than ever: check out "Life Is Good," which sounds like it was recorded at a track meet, complete with crowd noises and (I think) a starter's pistol, or the freakish interjections from Steve Berlin's one-man reed section on "Little Japan." This is a disk that practically cries out for a good set of headphones. At the same time, though, the band's live sound remains intact. Bassist Conrad Lozano and drummer Louis Perez lay down a series of bottom-heavy grooves, which steer the proceedings in a funky direction, while guitarists David
Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas dip into their deep reservoir of blues licks. Froom's dial-twiddling and trickery are, I should make clear, a source of great pleasure. But it's also tempting to imagine Los Lobos tearing through this material onstage, sacrificing a few textural frills for additional wallop.
As for the songs themselves, Hidalgo and Rosas keep up their usual
division of labor. That is, Rosas delivers the tales of lost love -- like "Can't Stop The Rain," with its mentholated flute riff, and the refurbished soul music of "Little Japan." He's also the life of the party, urging his date to kick up her heels to the snappy, accordion-driven rhythm in "Maricela." Hidalgo tends to have weightier subjects on his mind, or at least more sobering ones. On "Everybody Loves A Train" he seems to be delving into social portraiture, to judge from the sampled grumbling about Los Angeles in the left channel. But "Revolution" suggests that Hidalgo has tired of firing arrows at the American Dream: "Too tired, too tired, sister/ To hold my fist so high/ Now that it's gone." It might be a depressing moment, if it didn't have such a good beat.
The beat, of course, always comes to the rescue of Los Lobos when things get dicey. (Or almost always: "This Bird's Gonna Fly" collapses under the weight of its bludgeoning sax riff, and gave me an idea of what the rest of the disk would sound like on a hangover.) But the band's other saving grace is its quirky sense of humor, which is in full flower here. There's Hidalgo's blissed-out vocal on "Life Is Good," which doesn't sound insincere so much as quizzical, and there's the after-hours instrumental the band has tacked onto the end of the disk and titled "Buddy Ebsen Loves the Night Time." There's also the title cut, a cryptic bit of psychedelia whose heaviness is undercut by the school-of-Little-Red-Riding-Hood lyrics ("What big eyes you have! What big lips you have!") Nobody's bending over backwards for a punch line. No, these guys simply enjoy a good laugh.
What other musicians would urge their audience to "get down," as Los Lobos has habitually done, and then perform the rest of the tune sprawled on their backs?

James Marcus

James Marcus is a critic, translator and novelist living in Portland, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to Salon.

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