In a period when grace is a rare commodity in popular music, the new Los Lobos album, The Neighborhood, soars with it. Songs such as "Angel Dance," "Little John of God," "Deep Dark Hole" and "The Giving Tree" sound like secular hymns, a tribute to the soul-deep songwriting of David Hidalgo and Louis Peréz. The album is filled with the sort of songs that are handed down, passed along as people give voice to their aspirations, persevere through troubled times and try to make sense of their lives.
Coming three years after the band's last album of all-original material, The Neighborhood might disappoint some fans who anticipated a blockbuster that proclaimed itself in self-consciously ambitious terms. In its simplicity and understatement, The Neighborhood lacks the anthemic sweep of the band's 1987 release By the Light of the Moon (which was overshadowed by the popular breakthrough of "La Bamba"), and it doesn't consistently pack the punch of the band's powerhouse live performances.
The grittier side of Los Lobos does evince itself in the sizzle of "I Walk Alone," the fatback groove of Jimmy McCracklin's "Georgia Slop" and the dance-party jive of "Jenny's Got a Pony." As happens in any good neighborhood, Los Lobos benefits from the help of friends, with guest vocals by John Hiatt and Levon Helm and a songwriting collaboration between Cesar Rosas and blues master Willie Dixon.
Ultimately, though, the aching, yearning purity in the voice of David Hidalgo carries the album. A bringing-it-all-back-home affair, The Neighborhood finds a spiritual dimension, a sense of wonder in the course of everyday life.