For Los Lobos, breaking out of the bars and barrios was a cinch compared to escaping the Mexican-folk tag that has cast this East Los Angeles quintet as more of a torchbearer than a groundbreaker. But the band’s soul-drenched 1990 album The Neighborhood blazed a challenging trail that has led to Kiko, a quirky yet emotionally gripping album that sets tales of hope and despair against rhythmic backdrops spiked with feedback, distortion, sound bites and other studio shenanigans that defy roots-rock tradition. From the bluesy clout of “That Train Don’t Stop Here” to the Beatles-influenced balladry of “When the Circus Comes” from the haunting cabaret jazz of “Kiko and the Lavender Moon” to the festive waltz of “Rio de Tenampa,” Kiko finds Los Lobos expanding their sound by finding new directions in familiar territory.
Coproducer Mitchell Froom downplays acoustic folk instruments in favor of a wobbly, intoxicating patchwork of textures and colorings that include percolating percussion, snarling electric guitars, gurgling baritone saxophones, foreboding Indian chants, angelic harps and an arsenal of keyboards. Despite the ambitious production, the music sounds more created than contrived, thanks to the compassionate touch of the group’s main songwriters, singer-guitarist David Hidalgo and drummer Louis Péerez. Their compelling narratives address child abuse (“Two Janes,” inspired by the suicide of two Milwaukee sisters), alcoholism (“Whiskey Trail”), homelessness (“Angels With Dirty Faces”) and rape (“Reva’s House”) without resorting to slogans or melodrama. Even death is accepted with disarming grace and dignity in an elegant lullaby called “Saint Behind the Glass” (featuring a rare lead vocal by Pérez).
Rather than peddle easy messages on Kiko, Los Lobos embrace the cathartic power of rock, country and blues, as well as elements of Catholicism and Hispanic and Native American folklore that offer comfort, wisdom and strength in the face of such adversity.