Los Lobos (with special guests): The Ride
Sound/Style: Groove-heavy, R&B-influenced American/Hispanic hybrid
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- Los Lobos, a four-fifths Hispanic band, are a musical treasure whose skill at blending their own cultural influences with essential American music forms is similar to that of Ray Charles. The comparison ends there, though, as Los Lobos seem consigned to a life on the fringes by their insistence on forging a direction of their own. While this precludes the likelihood of widespread renown, it has placed the band in an elite bloodline of determined visionaries who command the respect of their peers by drawing from - and adding to - the well of truly great American music. To commemorate their 20th anniversary as a recording act (the group’s been together considerably longer), Los Lobos have teamed with an idiosyncratic assembly of guests on Ride. By so doing, they’ve demonstrated the essence of their stylistic diversity as well as illuminated the various elements that comprise it.
This collection of mostly new tracks is at once rootsy, classic and forward-looking - another unique facet of Lobos’ comprehensive approach. On the insistent, heavily Latin-flavored opener, "La Venganza De Los Pelados" ("The Revenge Of The Penniless"), Lobos mixes it up with cutting-edge Hispanic group Café Tacuba to create a foreboding sound, while their whacked-out Brazilian-styled collaboration with Tom Waits, "Kitate," is as nightmarish as it is quirkily humorous. The truth be told, much of Lobos’ work has an intimidating, almost dangerous quality. This can be heard in the switchblade guitar riffs and biting saxophone lines on narrow-eyed but nonetheless engaging cuts like "Hurry Tomorrow" and the Jimi Hendrix-ish "Charmed."
Again, like Ray Charles, Lobos seem to maintain a suspicious distance from their listeners, though they haven’t adopted the late Charles’ easy show-biz artifice. This may be a built-in feature of the still-uneasy alliance between the Hispanic community and a comparatively affluent American middle class - a topic often broached in Lobos’ work. To their credit, they uphold the nobility of their ethnicity, never pandering to a "victim of prejudice" stance. A case in point is "A Matter Of Time," a song reprised from their breakthrough Will The Wolf Survive album. Here the song - which deals with the plight of families whose breadwinners are forced to go off in search of a future - is remade as a tender piano ballad sung by Elvis Costello. Costello’s appearance actually takes the song outside ethnic lines, finding a common thread in the human condition. "Across 110th Street," featuring soul legend Bobby Womack, is a Marvin Gaye-inspired number about escaping ghetto life that typifies Lobos’ socially conscious slant. The seldom-shown Christian beliefs of Lobos’ David Hidalgo surface on "Someday," another previously recorded number done here in an Al Green style with the incomparable Mavis Staples on lead vocals. Though the heavy-laden original version more effectively communicates weariness, Staples gives an impassioned performance as she sings "someday, I will go home/ and I’ll find peace in the house of my Heavenly Father/ I will feel pain no more."
The "guest star" approach is often a marketing ploy intended to broaden a group’s audience, and it might open new doors for the East L.A.-based quintet at album-oriented radio. Still, Los Lobos have rightfully earned their position among respected artists like Richard Thompson, Cuban singer Ruben Blades and Elvis Costello, and the inclusion of these talents here is, more than anything, a statement of artistic unity and purpose. Those who favor inventive rock steeped in traditional and ethnic influences will surely want to go along for Los Lobos’ Ride, an album that covers miles of familiar territory even as it heads confidently into the future.
Steve Morley is a free-lance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.