In 1992, when Los Lobos veered from roots rock to art rock on Kiko, it was as if Chuck Berry and Willie Dixon had adopted Genesis and Leonard Cohen as their role models. With its obscure lyrics, lack of grooves and ethereal mysticism, Kiko was a bold artistic gamble, but it is the weakest work in the Los Lobos catalog.
Colossal Head, Los Lobos' first album of new music in four years, represents a band still searching for the right balance between experimentation and craftsmanship, and between concepts and passion. It's an improvement over Kiko, but it falls far short of the group's three masterpieces, How Will the Wolf Survive?, By the Light of the Moon and The Neighborbood.
"Everybody Loves a Train" is a promising song about American restlessness, but it's one verse shy of finishing its story. "Revolution," a powerful confession of lost idealism, and "Can't Stop the Rain," a heartbroken lament, undermine their considerable potential by failing to provide a chorus or a memorable melody. The title track and "Life Is Good" are both seductive soundscapes, but they're musical fragments rather than finished songs.
With an oriental synth motif, a heartfelt vocal and shimmering wah-wah guitar, "Little Japan" is a worthy addition to Los Lobos' long line of homesick-immigrant songs. Best of all is "Manny's Bones," a marvelously ambiguous eulogy for a dead man who left behind equal amounts of resentment and affection. But it leaves you wondering: If David Hidalgo and Louie Perez can write a song with such funny and evocative lyrics, a swaggering beat and an infectious melody, why are they wasting their time with Bohemian gimmickry on the rest of the album?