Okay, now that I’m listening to a new (to me) album of Los Lobos’, I think I have finally got them figured out, or at least where they were in the late 90’s figured out. First, they’re great. That was in doubt for a while there, as little that I listened to really hit me in a visceral way the way I remember it. Second, they’re really, really cerebral. I knew they were progressive, but it’s only just hitting me how much they are screwing with convention thought this part of their oeuvre. Third, they are really good at making it seem like they’re not as cerebral and more visceral than they are. This is where I was getting hung up. I had remembered their catalog really appealing to me, and I remember their early work being viscerally appealing, and I remembered a lot of the grooves and hooks just by looking at the names, so I just kind of thought that they were a very raw band. But coming back to them I was finding that maybe the grooves weren’t quite as deep or fluid as I thought and maybe I was enjoying them more with my head than my heart than I remembered. And I think that’s true. But it’s also just fine. I was just out of sorts because I couldn’t put them in a box.
Here’s an example. “High Places” actually does feature a real slick groove in the rhythm section and the guitar, but then the vocals are double-tracked in a way where the second track falls behind the beat. So you’ve simultaneously got this very in-the-pocket thing going on while you’re being kept off balance by the vocals. (It doesn’t hurt the effect that the lyrics are about falling, being down, etc.) Or there’s “This Time,” which has a real laid back vibe, but leaves the kick of the backbeat until the third beat. How does that even happen?
I think a part of the problem I’d been having with this approach was that it just seemed to be getting a little too close to Steely Dan-ness. But I think the band avoids that by keeping things reined in. The songs are short, so you’re not, for example, getting an admonishment to Rikki burned into your brain. The album’s short, so your brain gets just the right amount of academic tease and doesn’t get fatigued by the end.
They take an interesting turn with their Spanish-language tracks on this album with “La Playa.” In high school, a friend and I were constantly frustrated with how incompetent our classmates were at learning French. Every year it seemed they got no better, only able to remember the very first sentence we learned, “On va à la plage.” Which is why these lyrics strike my funny bone: “Vamos a la playa/…/Mucho fun.”
I’d say this album is just a little bit better than its predecessor, Colossal Head. It seems shorter and better planned. For example, it’s nice that they start off with the low key song to pull you in, rather than kind of bringing things way down in the middle of the album (see “Little Japan” from the earlier album). But really it’s Colossal Head part two. The two are of a piece. You could take the songs from the two albums and mix them up and never really lose a cohesive feel. And the rating, then, is the same, too. A very good, solid disc that I love listening to, just a little too academic to work myself up into a frenzy over.
– “This Time,” “Viking,” “High Places”
– “Oh Yeah,” “Cumbia Raza,” “Run Away With You,” “Corazon,” “Some Say, Some Do,” “Turn Around,” “La Playa,” “Why We Wish”
Song Notes: After the jump