Friday, February 8, 2013
Los Lobos "The Neighborhood"
Looking at the eighth album by eminent roots rockers Los Lobos it’s useful to remind oneself of the chronology that lead up to its 1990 release. In the wake of critical rather than commercial success with How Will the Wolf Survive and By the Light of the Moon they’d done the soundtrack to the Richie Valens biopic La Bamba, hit the notional big time with the eponymous single and then run into a big problem.
According to drummer Louie Pérez, We had released a bunch of cool records and then La Bamba happened and we became this big thing. It almost eclipsed everything else that we had done before. I think the band went through a little bit of an identity crisis because, here we were, 'The La Bamba Band.
The reaction was to retreat to their folkloric roots with the all-Spanish La Pistola y el Corazón (1988), and then head back with a collection of new rock-oriented material with the disc under consideration here.
From the start of Down on the Riverbed to the title track at the end of the album, The Neighbourhood runs through a variety of settings and genres, from a bluesy rock exploration of a vagabond existence where you really don’t want to make anything resembling a commitment even though the offer is made (Down on the Riverbed), a countryish hoedown with vocal assistance from Levon Helm (Emily) and a rocking statement of self reliance (a sizzling I Walk Alone).
There’s a semi-Cajun lilt to Angel Dance, a subdued hymn-like vibe with mandolin and rangy vocals from Levon Helm on the delicately minimalist Little John of God before the rock returns for Deep Dark Hole and the muscular fatback stomp of Jimmy McCracklin’s Georgia Slop. I Can't Understand offers an interesting writing credit of Cesar Rosas/Willie Dixon (yes, that Willie Dixon) and rocks along very nicely indeed and, with Hidalgo’s accordion to the fore The Giving Tree heads back into Cajun territory.
They drop it back a tad for Take My Hand then it’s off into Mitch Ryder house party territory for Jenny's Got a Pony, four and a bit minutes of old-style sixties R&B before the swirling, accordion-led Be Still and a swing back into the territory we started in for The Neighborhood.
A glance at the personnel listing reveals what looks suspiciously like a vote of no confidence in drummer Louis Pérez, with session musos Jerry Marotta and Jim Keltner getting most of the action, but that’s possibly explained by the guitars, jarana, hidalguer in the credits after Louie’s name.
Looking at the big picture (with the benefit of some twenty-odd years’ hindsight) you can trace an evolution in the Los Lobos catalogue from the first two independent releases to the dance/party band (...And a Time to Dance), to eclectic roots rockers hinting at good things to come (How Will the Wolf Survive, great album in itself, but hasn’t quite got there yet) to stretching the wings a bit (By the Light of the Moon).
In my reading of things La Bamba is an understandable flirtation with the mainstream since the preceding recordings didn’t race out the door by the semi-trailer load and someone had to provide the music for the Latino rocker biopic, so why not?
Reassert the roots with La Pistola y el Corazón, which I suspect has a bit to do with the array of traditional instruments in the listing below. It’s difficult to go much further than I suspect in that regard, since The Neighbourhood is the only album where the Wikipedia provides those details and the other results at the top of a Google search for Los Lobos discography don’t provide ‘em at all. Pistola presumably had them as well, and with the possibilities in the process of being explored things are being set in place for what was to follow.
What followed was, of course, Kiko, one of the great (for my money, anyway) albums. With The Neighborhood they’re well on the way but not quite there yet. Kiko and the subsequent consolidation of the territory is, however, well and truly on the horizon and The Neighborhood’s bringing-it-all-back-home portrait of the ups and downs of an urban existence delivers a slice of Americana (before that label existed as a genre) blending strands of roots music into an intriguing mix that’ll offer plenty of room for subsequent exploration.
Personnel (according to Wikipedia):
David K. Hidalgo - vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, 6-string bass, tiple, accordion, bajo sexto, violine, Hawaiian steel, koto guitar, drums, percussion
Cesar J. Rosas - vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, bajo-sexto, huanpanguera
Louie F. Pérez, Jr. - drums, percussion, guitars, jarana, hidalguer
Conrad R. Lozano - vocals, fender precision and 5-string bass, guitarron, upright bass
Steve M. Berlin - tenor, baritone and soprano saxophones, organ, clavinet, percussion
Jerry Marotta - drums
Danny Timms - organ, wurlitzer, piano
Alex Acuña - percussion, shekere, hand drums
John Hiatt - vocals
Jim Keltner - drums, percussion
Levon Helm - vocals, mandolin
Mitchell Froom - harmonium