Los Lobos

Colossal Head

(Warner Brothers)

By Peter Margasak

This morning I heard the issue of Bob Dole’s age discussed once again on the news. A reporter asked if Dole can connect with voters under 30. The answer, of course, is clear. The man’s plumb out of touch. He’s played the game of politics for so many years that the actual requirements of politics have long since slipped from his grasp.

Age can be a cruel thing, especially for rockers. Frequently defined as the domain of youth, rock music has witnessed many a once-spirited disciple refuse to bow out gracefully and instead earn pathetic ignominy. It’s like watching grandparents romping in the sandbox while hoping that no one notices their sagging flesh. The Rolling Stones, the Who, and Rod Stewart have become shameless money-making repositories for nostalgia. Iggy Pop has a new, ultimately ineffectual record that will inspire acclaim because of something he did 25 years ago. Each wrinkle etched deep in his face apparently holds a youthful memory for one of his fans. Some writers have called elder rockers geezers. It’s not a nice label, and its application is unfairly indiscriminate. Los Lobos have been together for more than two decades, but geezers they ain’t. In fact, their new record, Colossal Head, proves definitively that they possess more spark and ideas than most whippersnappers half their age.

To most folks Los Lobos are that slightly portly band that covered “La Bamba” back in the 80s. To others they’re a nice roots-rock band that’ll throw in the occasional Tex-Mex ditty for good measure. In reality Los Lobos are one of America’s most consistent, substantial, and essential rock bands. Started in 1973 as a Chicano wedding band, they emerged from LA’s roots-rock scene through the support of Blasters saxophonist Steve Berlin, who eventually joined the band. The brilliant How Will the Wolf Survive? earned them critical consensus in 1984, and three years later their number one Ritchie Valens cover scored them bread. With 1990’s blustery, blues-inflected The Neighborhood the band approached a stylistic crisis; the ideas seemed to be drying up, even if their attack and songwriting ability were as vital as ever. Two years later with Kiko Los Lobos showed they weren’t dead yet, hooking up with producer Mitchell Froom to creatively tweak their distinct approach to true Americana. But the most dramatic event leading up to the new record was engendered by a 1994 side project called the Latin Playboys.

Band members David Hidalgo and Louie Perez paired up with Froom and engineer Tchad Blake to create an alternate sound universe, vividly demonstrating that traditional songcraft could be revitalized through bold experimentation. The band’s eponymous album explored the nexus between fi’s hi and lo. Cleanly articulated guitar lines commingled with riffs that sounded like they were bubbling up from within the deep blue. Muffled percussion clashed with treble-heavy clatter, and countless sonic surprises kept leaping out from the songs. Soulful singing and solid hooks vied for attention with breathtaking sounds and production, but no one element won out–they worked together.

Froom and Blake have returned behind the knobs of Colossal Head, and the sense of liberation experienced by Hidalgo and Perez has rubbed off on the rest of the band. The album opens with the massive groove of “Revolution,” a compelling mix of fat bass and weird percussion that clears a wide-open space for gritty guitar, calm accordion, and Hidalgo’s understated vocals to occupy with a glovelike fit. Beneath the sonic tricks, however, is a terrific tune that suggests an unswerving connection with earlier works. “Mas y Mas” bristles with such energy–a furious, insistent rhythm, stinging lead guitar, gut-rumbling baritone sax honking, and highly alliterative collar-grabbing vocals–that there can be little doubt that Los Lobos feel invigorated. “Maricela” finds the band applying the same unusual sonics to a more traditionally Mexican tune, undergirding a sumptuous bed of Latin percussion, languid accordion, and a beautiful Spanish love song with an eerie, carnivalesque plaintiveness. What separates Colossal Head from Latin Playboys is that the former is more in the service of the song than the sound.

What strengthens the band’s major stylistic shifts here is the fact that they’re contiguous with their past. The change bears a notable similarity to Tom Waits’s reinvention on Swordfishtrombones. To this day Waits writes with the same poignant, oddball perspective of his earliest work, but musically and stylistically he continues to push the envelope. Both Waits and Los Lobos have found salvation in grittiness. While Los Lobos have never been a slick band, the new record revels in a joyous cacophony that serves as a tactile crust wrapping the continued tenderness of their songwriting. “Life Is Good” is set amid a drunken party atmosphere, but as police sirens blare in the distance one can sense the measured fatality in Hidalgo singing “I’ve been happy because my life is good / I keep laughing ’cause I know I should / I get all happy because my life is good, so good.” Matching the rough-hewn qualities of their music, the lyrics intimate life’s lack of order.

The record achieves its striking beauty because Los Lobos have eschewed neatness. Good rock music has always conveyed a sense of danger and unpredictability, which is why Rod Stewart’s a callous buffoon and Los Lobos sound as good as or better than they ever have.