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Music: The Wolves Survive

The new album by long-running Roots rockers Los Lobos recalls their finest work

By Alan Sculley · October 11th, 2006 · Music
  Los Lobos are one of the national headliners for Saturday's unveiling celebration at Fountain Square.
Los Lobos

Los Lobos are one of the national headliners for Saturday's unveiling celebration at Fountain Square.

To many fans of the veteran band Los Lobos, 1992's Kiko remains both a watershed moment and the high point of an album catalog filled with outstanding records. A sonically and stylistically adventurous work, Kiko took Los Lobos beyond its initial musical foundation of Mexican-tinged Roots Rock and turned it inside out, scrambling the lines between Blues, Soul, Rock and Pop. The exceptional music on Kiko firmly established Los Lobos as one of America's finest and most unique bands.

So when Louie Perez, the band's primary lyricist, compares the new Los Lobos album, The Town And The City, to Kiko, it's a comment that's sure to open eyes and create expectations for the new CD.

"The thing about this record, it just felt different, and I hadn't felt that since Kiko, had the experience of just letting it all go," Perez says. "Forget about formula, forget about this is the way a song should be written, forget about the studio, how (influential) the technology can be on you. Throw it all away. Do whatever feels right. Just let it all go ... I hadn't felt that since Kiko."

The comparison is valid just in terms of the music on The Town And The City, which shares Kiko's sonic adventurousness, its genre-bending nature and, most importantly, its musical quality.

The new album is more introspective and lower key than many Los Lobos albums. This makes it perhaps a bit less immediately accessible as much of the band's output. Yet with more listens, the depth and sophistication of the material reveals itself, and songs like the bluesy "Don't Ask Why," the soulful "Little Things" and the spooky ballad "Hold On" rate with the group's best efforts.

The quality of The Town and the City, of course, is business as usual for Los Lobos, which began performing around East Los Angeles in 1973. But in other ways, the new stuff is unlike any other Los Lobos record. Particularly when it came to the lyrical direction, Perez took Los Lobos into territory the band had rarely entered. For one thing, The Town And The City is as close to a thematic album as Los Lobos has made. While it doesn't attempt to tell a fully developed story, many of the songs are informed by the dreams and struggles that make up the immigrant experience.

It's a subject Los Lobos is uniquely qualified to examine, considering that four of its members -- singer/guitarist/multi-instrumentalist David Hidalgo, guitarist/singer Perez, guitarist/singer Cesar Rosas and bassist Conrad Lozano -- are Mexican-Americans. Keyboardist/saxophonist Steve Berlin is the only band member who doesn't share that heritage.

But the themes on the album aren't limited to people from a certain culture, which is one reason Perez resists the notion that The Town and the City is the band's "immigrant album." Indeed several songs address themes and issues that will resonate with people of any background. For instance, "Little Things" laments losing sight of love and other personal needs by focusing too much on material gains. "Two Dogs And A Bone" recalls some elemental life lessons dispensed by one's mother. The loneliness expressed in "If You Were Only Here Tonight" could be part of anyone's life.

Other songs, though, clearly relate to an immigrant's experience. "The Valley" captures the promise and the uncertainty of first gazing upon a new home. "The City" evokes the fast pace, the anonymity and even the danger of being thrust into big city life. "The Town," meanwhile, is an ode to leaving one's hometown.

The Town and the City, Perez says, also includes the most personal lyrics he has written. The natural way in which the lyrics occurred, he says, also connects the album to the Kiko experience.

"Once we got a few songs in, I noticed that the songs -- without any kind of design -- were in first person, which I never do," Perez says. "I usually write in more of a narrative style. I didn't know where that was coming from, and I talked to David (Hidalgo) about it and it just felt right. Of course I talked to David about it because he's the one who's going to sing these things ... he said, 'Yeah, let's go with it.' So it started to sound very personal, almost like a diary."

With The Town and the City now in stores (it came out Sept. 12), Los Lobos is beginning to play a few of the new songs live. Perez says he likes the way the band sounds on stage these days. They've slimmed down a bit as a live unit with the departure of percussionist Victor Bisetti, leaving Cougar Estrada as the band's touring drummer.

"Cougar is just phenomenal as a drummer," says Perez, who handled drum duties in the live lineup for a number of years. "He's really put a fire under us and made it fresh. It sounds pretty cool. It's a little more stripped down."

LOS LOBOS performs a free concert at 7:15 p.m. Saturday near Fountain Square for the monument/gathering place's grand reopening celebration.


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