Los Lobos

    Del Este de Los Angeles (self-released, 1978)
     …And a Time to Dance (Slash, 1983)
     How Will the Wolf Survive? (Slash/Warner Bros., 1984)
    By the Light of the Moon (Slash/Warner Bros., 1987)
     La Bamba (Slash/Warner Bros., 1987)
     La Pistola y el Corazón (Slash/Warner Bros., 1988)
     The Neighborhood (Slash/Warner Bros., 1990)
      Kiko (Slash/Warner Bros., 1992)
     Just Another Band From East L.A.—A Collection (Slash/Warner Bros., 1993)
     Colossal Head (Warner Bros., 1996)
     This Time (Hollywood, 1999)
      El Cancionero—Mas y Mas: A History of the Band From East L.A. (Rhino/Warner Archives, 2000)
     Good Morning Aztlán (Hollywood/Mammoth, 2002)
     The Ride (Hollywood/Mammoth, 2004)
     Live At The Fillmore (Hollywood/Mammoth, 2005)
    Acoustic En Vivo (Rider's Block, 2005)
     Wolf Tracks: The Best Of Los Lobos (Rhino, 2006)
     The Town And The City (Hollywood, 2006)
     Los Lobos Goes Disney (DisneyTracks, 2009)

One of the great roots-rock bands of the last few decades, Los Lobos have gotten better and better as they've gotten more and more creative with their roots. The band has always counted musica norteño and other Mexican folk styles among its sources, but Los Lobos have treated such music as just part of the mix, on par with R&B or country or the blues.

Although Los Lobos cut an album for local consumption in East L.A. in the late Seventies (De Este de Los Angeles) it was …And a Time to Dance that introduced the band to America at large. Packed with seven sweaty, endearing dance tunes, it ranges from the classic rock & roll of Richie Valens' "Come On, Let's Go" to the spirited Tex-Mex two-step of "Anselma." Still, the accordion-spiked blues of "Let's Say Goodnight" most clearly defines the band, and such rangy eclecticism is also typical of Los Lobos' first full album, How Will the Wolf Survive? With stunning ease, the band leaps from the blues-rock snarl of "Don't Worry Baby" to the giddy norteño groove of "Corrida #1" to the delicate string-band interplay of "Lil' King of Everything."

With By the Light of the Moon, the group broadened its lyrical perspective, moving from the realm of everyday romance to more explicitly ethical and political ground. But the big-picture efforts often seem forced, and apart from "One Time One Night," which strongly recalls Dave Alvin's later writing for the Blasters, and the lovely "River of Fools," the album is generally disappointing.

Yet with La Bamba, a soundtrack album for the Ritchie Valens biopic, Los Lobos wound up with a chart-topping single (the title tune) and a second Top Forty hit ("Come On, Let's Go"). On the whole, La Bamba manages to convey all of Los Lobos' appeal without any of its essence; perhaps that's why La Pistola y el Corazón focused exclusively on Mexican traditional tunes, avoiding rock & roll entirely.

Apparently reinvigorated, the band sounds stronger than ever on The Neighborhood. Some of that may have to do with the use of studio drummers to shore up Louis Pérez's sometimes shaky time-keeping, but mostly it's the material, which finds the band showing all its strengths, whether in the muscular stomp of "Georgia Slop," the gentle strains of "Little John of God," or the giddy, multiethnic waltz of "The Giving Tree." Kiko, produced by the team of Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake (who, with Los Lobos guitarists David Hildago and Cesar Rojas, would record two albums as the Latin Playboys), broadened the band's palette considerably, transforming its blues impulses and bringing a dreamy sonic gauze to the wistful beauty of "Kiko and the Lavender Moon." Colossal Head and This Time continued the collaboration with frequently stunning results ("Mas y Mas," from Colossal Head, is as good as anything the band ever cut), while Good Morning Aztlán found the wolves drawing from an even wider range of South American influences (as on "Luz de Mi Vida" and "Malaqué") without relinquishing its country and blues chops.

If that seemed to suggest the group was pulling away from its Americano roots, The Ride clarified matters, using a string of celebrity cameos—by Bobby Womack, Elvis Costello, Mavis Staples, Richard Thompson, and Rubén Blades, among others—to add sparkle to the material. Womack's soulful singing on "Across 110th Street" is especially sweet.

Their first live album, Live At The Fillmore, was recorded shortly after The Ride's release, and it showcases the band at their burliest, leaning into blues-rock with athletic zeal and treating the other material like one big rave-up (save the fairly cheesy cover of "What's Goin On"). As if to offset the crunchy Fillmore set, the corresponding, self-released Acoustic En Vivo showcases the band unplugged en español, furiously plucking in the same Mexican folk vein that made Pistola an interesting, but not wholly satisfying, detour. The Town And The City is a meditation on the triumph and trials of Mexican-American immigrants. Los Lobos bring their storytelling ballads to Springsteen highs and their darkest blues to Tom Waits-ian arenas of disorientation, adding Kiko-style touches like ambient noise and errant percussion. Los Lobos Goes Disney is kids album—it's unlikely enough that it exists, and it's more unlikely that it's good. But good it is, juicing long-sterile Disney songs with either new muscle (a frenetic "Heigh-Ho") or new heartbreak (a tender "I Will Go Sailing No More").

Of the anthologies, the two-disc Just Another Band From East L.A. and the one-disc Wolf Tracks make reasonable hits packages, but present fairly shallow views of the band. By contrast, the four-CD El Cancionero—Mas y Mas includes all the essentials as well as some well-chosen rarities and samples from the band's various spin-off projects.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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