The bustling barrio and hope and hardluck
From Los Lobos’ critically acclaimed debut, “How Will the Wolf Survive?,” to its 1995 masterpiece, “Kiko,” the quintet has wept with the weepiest mariachis, run the gauntlet with the Beatles from “Hard Day’s Night” to “Strawberry Fields Forever” and wailed at the outlaw’s altar to the rootsy, Biblical folk rock of the Band.
But the result is no aimless, musical stew. It’s a finely-crafted barrage of blazing rockers and heartbreaking laments that, from track to track, makes you want to dance, drink a toast, make love under the moon and then weep your brains out.
Their impressive new release, “Good Morning Aztlan” continues in the same vigorous vein. The album starts with, “Done Gone Blue,” a rousing, bluesy romp, decelerates to the winsome, Cuban plaint “Luz de Mi Vida,” to the melancholy “Tony Y Maria.”
Aside from their incomparable sound, what sets Los Lobos apart is what they sing about. The are no banal why-didn’t-you-call-me love songs or overwrought rants of self-loathing. Los Lobos songs are full of life –mundane and magnificent—and they find spiritual comfort in things as simplistic as lullabies, curtains blown by the wind and the smell of coffee brewing.
Many songs on “Good Morning Aztlan,” paint luscious landscapes of the sensuous, erotic and crowded life in working class Hispanic neighborhoods, both in the U.S. and Mexico.
In the song “Good Morning Aztlan,”:
“There’s a sharp dressed man,
playing something on a fiddle
in a backyard right next door
and everybody’s mother’s
cooking something in the kitchen
got dishes stacked ceiling to floor.”
This happens throughout the album: the creative abandon of a song sawed out on a fiddle collides with the mundane monstrosity of an overwhelming pile of dirty dishes. A car horn blares outside, a lovestruck teenage girl covers herself in makeup and world weary folks refer to their homes as “piles of dirt” –it’s a bustling barrio where triumph is rare, troubles abound but most of its inhabitants survive on dreams, memories, romance and a biting sense of humor.
In “The Big Ranch,” the simple and sparer life of a rural town collides with a life under siege in the city. It could be a migration from the country to the city, or from Mexico to the U.S., but whichever trip it is, some freedom and some spirituality are lost along the way.
The man in “The Big Ranch” is stunned when a family member’s New Year’s resolution is to buy a .45 caliber handgun to keep under her pillow :
“Laying on a beat ol’ sofa
on the porch when nights were hot
eatin’ instant mash potatoes
from a big ol’ iron pot
Never had much to worry about
slept the night under a bunch of stars
now all the doors got fifteen locks
and the windows are covered up with bars.”
“Tony Y Maria,” is perhaps a first of its kind love-song. It’s a Mexican immigrant couples’ tale of displacement and alienation in their doomed bid for a better life.
Tony, who immigrated to Los Angeles years before, writes his wife Maria and asks her to come live with him. But the “Promised Land” quickly turns sour and hopeless: “Tony washes dishes and Maria she sweeps floors, the dreams that they once had, they don’t have anymore.”
Eventually, the couples’ children –and their own hearts – call them back to Mexico.
“They saw a shooting star burning silver and so bright
said this here could be a sign
that it’s time to go back home
“cause even with you near me
I still feel so all alone.”
Many of Los Lobos’ albums, including “La Pistola Y El Corazon,” “How Will the Wolf Survive,” “Colossal Head” and “Just Another Band From East L.A.” are worth owning. But what may cast a shadow over the band’s music is that their 1995 release “Kiko” was such a stunning, superior record that everything else they’ve put out pales in comparison.
The album that stands up most to “Kiko” comes from Latin Playboys, an experimental side project launched by Los Lobos songwriting team David Hidalgo and Louie Perez.
Their stellar and phantasmagoric 1994 album, “Latin Playboys,” sounds like something Tito Puente, Sun Ra and the pink elephants from “Dumbo” might sit down and groove to together.
But it’s clear from the sometimes jubilant, sometimes heartbroken singing of the group’s front men, Perez, Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, that there are few groups whose songs are as thoughtful or as heartfelt as Los Lobos.
But let’s just hope they can go back to the studio and crank out an album that matches “Kiko’s” mastery because that record will be something special.
Matt Zalaznick covers public safety, Eagle County Courts and Avon/ Beaver Creek. He can be reached at (970) 949-0555 ext. 606 or via e-mail at email@example.com.