David Hidalgo of Los Lobos is the latest chronicler of the American jitters. The seven songs Hidalgo co-wrote for By the Light of the Moon form the topical core of the LP and stand as poignant, impressionistic portraits of economically hard-hit working-class people whose chronic emotional state is uncomprehending resignation. They wonder why America’s great promise has delivered so little to them, how they ended up struggling and alone, where they can turn.
The grainy honesty of Hidalgo’s vocals, the plain-speaking poetics of his images and the exuberant versatility of Los Lobos’ playing prevent Hidalgo’s deep feeling from slipping into sentimentality. The tentative optimism he offers in the LP’s last two songs, however, is at once spiritually moving and somewhat confused’a reflection more of wishes, hopes and new-found faith than of potential realities.
The thematic dominance Hidalgo’s songs attain on By the Light of the Moon points up the album’s curiously divided soul. On Los Lobos’ previous outings, the 1983 EP … And a Time to Dance and the 1984 album How Will the Wolf Survive?, Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas established a compelling one-two punch as singers, composers and multi-instrumentalists. Their songwriting prowess, coupled with the band’s ability to blend traditional Latin musical styles, rock & roll hooks and New Wave urgency, won Los Lobos critical acclaim and a significant following. While each man’s vision has become increasingly focused, however, Hidalgo and Rosas seem to have moved in different, not altogether complementary, directions.
Hidalgo’s songs have taken on rich social resonance, whereas Rosas’s contributions come out swinging’deftly drawing on funk, R&B and boogie-charged rock for his contributions to By the Light of the Moon. Such freewheeling, double-charged eclecticism has been part of Los Lobos’ appeal from the first, but the varied components of their music weren’t quite so schematized before. At times it seems as if Hidalgo and Rosas were writing for two equally powerful but markedly distinct albums.
By the Light of the Moon opens with “One Time One Night,” a high-stepping countryish number written by Hidalgo and drummer Louie Perez, in which images of violence and personal desolation undercut the reassuring commonplaces of “an age old song about the home of the brave.” In that song, one awakens from the American dream to a perilous reality, “a world that’s still the same”; this sentiment is soon echoed on the jazzy, grimly reflective “Is This All There Is?,” where “tired souls with empty hands” are vainly “searching for the promised land.” Hidalgo’s mood darkens even further in the folk-rocking “The Hardest Time,” a quiet portrait of a mother’s domestic despair. The stark ballad “River of Fools” virtually abandons the possibility of secular deliverance and hints at the religious redemption offered in the LP’s closing ballad, “Tears of God.”
Meanwhile, Rosas weighs in with the apocalyptic guitar burner “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes,” By the Light of the Moon‘s first single (co-written by the LP’s producer, T Bone Burnett). “Set Me Free (Rosa Lee),” which recalls Bruce Springsteen in its R&B brio and the name of its heroine, and the funk-driven “My Baby’s Gone” are Rosas’s other two compositions, and both provide punchy sonic contrast to Hidalgo’s uncompromising social realism.
In this context, however, “Prenda del Alma,” the passionate Mexican love ballad Rosas sings in Spanish, seems more like a nostalgic allusion to Los Lobos’ ethno-musical roots than like a song that properly belongs on the album. This is not because Los Lobos have “sold out,” despite undeniable indications of mainstreaming on the LP. Continuing the evolution evident on How Will the Wolf Survive?, Los Lobos bring Hidalgo and Rosas’s stinging guitars, Steve Berlin’s tough sax and drummer Louie Perez and bassist Conrad Lozano’s Stones-like precision increasingly to the fore. If accordion raveups and Latin instrumentation now color rather than define the band’s sound, Los Lobos still play faster and looser with genres than virtually any other American band’a fact nicely highlighted by the crackling crispness of Burnett’s lucid, no-frills production.
Finally, two Hidalgo-Perez tunes, “The Mess We’re In” and “Tears of God,” end By the Light of the Moon on a surprising, oddly unsettling note. Kicking in upbeat and hard after the near hopelessness of “River of Fools,” “The Mess We’re In” acknowledges the harsh realities Hidalgo has detailed but bracingly insists, “The smoke is clearing and we see a light.” That “light,” however, takes on a distinctly religious hue in “Tears of God,” a beautiful, comforting ballad that concludes, “The tears of God will show you the way/The way to turn.” The disturbing resemblance between this promise of otherworldly salvation and the alluring American-dream mythology he’s spent an entire album debunking doesn’t seem to have occurred to Hidalgo.
By the Light of the Moon, then, is a dense, perplexing album that raises important issues and, finally, ducks the implications of its own gritty ambitions’all the while rocking like there’s no tomorrow. Provocative, overreaching, conceptually flawed and brilliantly executed, By the Light of the Moon should spark heated debate among Los Lobos devotees, initiates and just about anyone else who cares about the direction of young American bands.