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The Boston Phoenix This Time

Los Lobos' big breakthrough

By Richard C. Walls

AUGUST 9, 1999:  It seems, in retrospect, that Los Lobos have spent the '90s working their way toward the release of their new CD, This Time (Hollywood); that though their previous two efforts at modernizing their hyphenated musical stew -- '92's Kiko and '96's Colossal Head -- were baby steps with a little too much studio fizz and not enough songcraft, they were still necessary precursors to this CD's big leap, the one where they get it right. The alienated crunch of producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake is now at the service of consistently strong material. The Lobos' bittersweet inclinations and the layered sounds of beastly guitars and God-knows-what-else mesh. Nicely.

One thing that makes the experiment work so well this time is that nothing is overdone. Even wretched excess is measured out judiciously. Several songs have an instrumental section that begins aggressively, then reaches a things-fall-apart point where the proverbial kitchen sink whizzes by in all its dissonant grandeur -- but the whole episode is finished in less than a minute, sometimes less than 30 seconds (hell, the whole disc, 11 songs total, is over in less than 40 minutes, God love 'em). Just a taste of wild abandon, then back to the song.

But these trippy outbursts aren't just random ear candy, they're sonic corollaries for the intense emotions bubbling under most of the songs (the majority of them written by David Hidalgo and Louie Perez). On the title cut, the disc's opener, we first hear what sounds like a bullfrog about to hurl behind a thinly hard, medium-tempo beat. An uneasy mood is established, then quickly dispelled as Hidalgo's soulful croon enters with "Why do the days go by so fast/If only time was built to last." Later he sings, "Could be that time don't really know/That it should try to take it slow," but the melody sounds more mellow than rueful, almost happy with the kind of bouncy hook that quickly sinks into your pleasure points. And yet the subject here is a huge dissatisfaction, and so it makes sense that even after the plump and ingratiating guitar enters, that raspy, scraping noise from the song's opening continues just on the periphery of your hearing.

Okay, that may sound like too close a reading, but consider Exhibit B: "Viking" is about a guy the singer used to see in the barrio, someone worth remembering because "He was about you and me/With a big scar/Where his heart should've been," and later, "with a tattoo/Where his heart could've been/He was about everything." The slide over to universality is typical of Lobos' smarts (and changing "should've" to "could've" is brilliant) but it's the music that kicks this one home, that tells how harsh the story really is. Featuring a nasty-sounding fuzz guitar, it comes out of the stall like an old Stones song, even drowning out its lyrics at times, arriving at an oddly extended (though brief) instrumental bridge, all purple passion, unbridled. The lyrics are sparse, even wistful, but the music means to rip your face off.

There's more. "Turn Around" has the most oblique lyrics on the set -- it could be about perseverance or it could be about fatalism, and for the most part it's driven by acoustic guitar, horns, and a big backbeat. But I'll take my interpretive clues from the instrumental break, which is a free fall into noise before the reassuring return of the acoustic guitar, and cast my vote for perseverance. "Why We Wish" manages to be both upbeat and realistic, positing desire as a defense against the uncaring passage of time. But the song ends in musical chaos, a nonsensical sound that swallows hope. It also happens to be the disc's final moments.

As for the three Spanish-language songs, "Cumbia Raza," "Corazón," and "La Playa": I'm a monoglot and there's no English translation provided, so the best I can do is point out that they're quite lovely -- even "La Playa," which has a sort of techno gloss to it (no doubt some corollary I'm missing). They sound . . . deep, and sometimes it's better not to know what the lyrics mean. I can still remember how nearly depressed I became when someone translated the glorious "La Bamba" for me. (Note from Richard's sort-of polyglot editors: This Time's Spanish lyrics aren't all that deep, so we're leaving him in ignorant bliss.)

Industry scuttlebutt has it that Hollywood Records scooped up Los Lobos in order to jump on the Latino/pop bandwagon, such as it is. If so, then the joke's on HR because, though Los Lobos continue with their roots mastery intact, they've evolved into a darkly progressive, pretty much unclassifiable aggregate. Which is tough for niche programmers, but pretty damn good for us.

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