Archive for June 2011

In case you forgot who this chair belongs to…

With any luck, you’ve heard more of Los Lobos than simply their cover of the Ritchie Valens hit, “La Bamba.” Because if you haven’t, you don’t really have any idea what they’re about and have missed out on several albums worth of incredibly creative and powerful music. Not that you could be faulted for that, as American radio certainly hasn’t done a great job at playing their music…except for “La Bamba.” And sure, it’s a good cover and all, but Los Lobos usually play all originals — the songwriting team of David Hidalgo and Louie Perez has truly been one of the most inventive over the last 20 years. Staying true to their Mexican-American roots (they originated in East Los Angeles) in one sense but straying far beyond the more traditional Mexican/blues/roots-influenced songs they began playing, they’ve created some incredible music along the way.

Los Lobos has had numerous peaks over the years, but the album that stands out above all the rest is Kiko, released in 1992. The album was produced by Mitchell Froom, who at the time was very in demand for his unusual kitchen-sink approach to music, getting sounds out of all sorts of objects and looping them into the music — he also worked very successfully with artists like Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, and Tom Waits. As it turns out, Froom’s production suited Los Lobos to a T. The atmospheric songs of Hidalgo and Perez, as well as the more bluesy, roots-bound rave ups of their other main songwriter, Cesar Rosas, were allowed to open up and find a new sonic depth and maturity. Kiko finds Hidalgo and Perez working at the peak of their talents — nearly every song is stunning in its mood and melody, with thought-provoking lyrics to boot.

It’s hard to elevate one song from this album above the others, but “Wake Up Dolores” is a dreamy, mesmerizing highlight on an album that’s full of them. The loping drum beat combines with the detached distortion of the guitar and the otherworldly backing vocals chanting words in ancient Aztec to create a lush, varied background for Hidalgo’s great voice. The song seems to be about a dream of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire in what is now Mexico, the backing vocals singing something along the lines of:

Broken spears lie in the roads;
We have torn our hair in our grief
The houses are roofless now, and their walls
Are red with blood.

Not that I’m fluent in Aztec or anything. I just looked up the lyrics and then plugged that Aztec chant into good ol’ Google to get what appears to be the general translation — they are apparently a verbatim verse of an ancient Aztec poem/account of the final days of the cruelty suffered at the hands of the Spanish. Knowing this adds to the levity of the song, but it doesn’t take complete understanding of the lyrics to appreciate what a great song it is.