Found in Translation

Back when touring British punk bands used to find local "ethnic" bands for first acts, Los Lobos opened for PiL in L.A. "I had never seen more effluvia thrown at anybody," recalled future Lobo Steve Berlin who was in the crowd. Having witnessed the Clash's big white audience hurling beer cans at Grandmaster Flash, I could picture it. Punk would soon die and go to heaven, while rap would rule the sound waves for more than a decade. Meanwhile, Los Lobos-East L.A. high school friends David Hidalgo, Louie Perez, Cesar Rojas, and Conrad Lozano, plus ex-Blaster Berlin--have Just released Colossal Head, the latest breakthrough in a turnaround-filled career that embraces 10 records, two Grammies, uncountable soundtrack and tribute cameos, a kiddie record, a crucial spin-off, and a Clairol commercial.

There is, as they say in academia, a story Los Lobos tell about themselves. The story of taking instruments in and out of storage. Here we see the men realizing they had no future as a rock and roll cover band, stashing their electric guitars, replacing them with Mexican instruments, and playing what is usually designated "Mexican folk music" to earn a living of sorts at weddings and birthdays, even managing to independently release the acoustic Just Another Band From East L.A. Next, we see them dragging those electric instruments our again after the PiL gig blew their minds, to write their own songs and make rock and roll with a difference. Their new sound draws on blues, folk rock, Motown, whatever, yet has a conceptual clarity and formal alertness that, like the right shoes, would help this unapologetically Chicano group find its way to punk clubs and the punk indie Slash, where the EP . . . And a Time To Dance will capture critics' interest, and the LP How Will the Wolf Survive? will be the label's first major success.

Next, it is 1988. The band's soundtrack to Hollywood's bio of Chicano rock forefather Ritchie Valens, La Bamba, has threatened to catapult the Lobos straight into the mainstream. Back to the closet or garage or wherever they keep these things, and the instrument exchange resumes. Goodbye Strat, hello jarana and tololoche and guitarra and guitarrón for the Spanish-only La Pistola y el Corazón. Now the terms begin to get fuzzy. Dissonance, murk, sonic effects, and surrealism encroach with 1992's Kiko, and soon the band has executed its next turnaround. In 1994, an ad hoc group calling itself the Latin PIayboys--Perez, Hidalgo, longtime producer Mitchell Froom and engineer Tchad Blake--dismembers Kiko's leftovers for a sound that's almost avant-garde. This year, the whole band's more songful Colossal Head shares the Playboys' breathtaking mix of found sound, blank verse, world-music echoes, gigantic dynamics, and new rhythms, messed up with fuzz distortion and mucho lo-fi garbage, as if to say: We are too old for all this in and out of storage. Why not move into the garage ourselves?

Of course, Los Lobos' sound wasn't ever really about change. It was about mixture, with bilingualism the least of it. Early recordings combined the accordion and open-air feel of TexMex norteño, the slurred complaints of the blues, and the soul-satisfying whomp of old-time rock and roll with the plain melodies and direct Iyrics of folk rock in hard-edged vocals that were plaintive and intense, like a deeply worried Freddy Fender. As the work progressed, the meld became increasingly complex, subtle, and seamless. What these last two albums have done is show the seams, or pick them apart. And indeed, many of the songs were constructed in an after-the-fact mix and match of preexisting lyrics and music.

Colossal Head is gripping from minute one. An Afro-Latin rhythm the band has never come near before is most notable in "Maricela," but the "Cisco Kid" cowbell that announces the lead off "Revolution" establishes a recurring groove. This is a relatively loud, often raucous, and hard-driving album, whether in the breakaway "Mas y Mas" or in bump-and-grind numbers where Cesar Rojas makes up for his absence from the Playboys with some of the best singing (and songwriting) he's ever done--guttural, wobbly, loud. Where the Playboys practically deconstructed the idea of the song, this album has more recognizable Iyrics. But the words and melodies are often immersed or secondary, like rhythm guitar lines. "Everybody Loves a Train" sinks a page of vaguely beatnik poetry into a distorted vocal that sounds like your car radio has accidentally picked up the LAPD. Like Latin Playboys, Colossal Head is also really funny, as in that song and in the title cut, with its "Use Me" bottom and its Indian movie-music strings and its mysterious chorale and its dopey cartoon lyric. Yet at the same time this music has majesty and dramatic sweep. The tone ranges broadly. In the slides and screeches there's an unexpected sense of panic--of urban menace, revolution, fear. But somewhere in the mix, you can hear the creaky hinges in your own backyard where, like they say in the song, you get happy 'cause your life is so damn good.

One of the stories I used to tell myself about Los Lobos is that the years between How Will the Wolf Survive? and Latin Playboys were low on peaks, and that the groundbreaking Playboys album is in another league than Colossal Head. But the harder I listened, the more equal the two seemed, and the more fertile the surrounding mesa. So in these days, when the price of a CD is hard to come by, I'm afraid I'll have to recommend both Latin Playboys and Colossal Head. And though I hate to add a double disc to the ante, 1993's loving retrospective Just Another Band From East L.A. is what showed me around that mesa.

One of the other stories I still tell myself about this band concerns, er, cultural signifiers. Clothes, for instance. The first time I saw a photo of these guys, I thought the suit jackets, the buttoned-up shirts, the goatee, the vague '50s aura showed some sort of punk-Mex hybrid instead of what was more like parallel development of styles tracing back to the same pop sources, and I don't just mean Elvis. The punk-symp world that insulted, energized, and finally welcomed Los Lobos had its own Mexican-American roots in the frat-rock classics "Wooly Bully" and "96 Tears," and its own Latin tinge in bands like Los Cruzados and the Bags, not to mention Exene Cervenka, who is Tex-Mex herself. Scratch a cultural signifier and you might find more stories than you'll ever guess. Think the Mex-sax noir of Kiko, Latin Playboys, and Colossal Head sounds familiar? Try the tense, horned-up bar music that pushes the action in Orson Welles's creepy border drama Touch of Evil--after the fake rape and before Charlton Heston, wearing dark pancake to play a Mexican cop married to Janet Leigh, breaks a jukebox in a fight with a Mexican hood, shouting, "Donde estas, mi sposa?" The hood returns, "Oh, talk English, can't you?"

In 1996, with one-language jingoism trying to bully common sense, with Prop. 187 succeeding, with the nation's Latino population on its way to outstripping the African American, Los Lobos' continuing conversation about ethnicity, identity, and hybridization is more useful than ever. In a mix where flavors as irreducible as cumin combine with less famous Latin traditions like discipline and surrealism, what keeps this group vital is its ongoing hardheaded analysis and its basic urge to share.

An item in Colossal Head's publicity package leaves us with some parting thoughts on ethnic purity, in the form of a packing slip from an imaginary foreign country that includes instructions for assembling a Colossal Head in your own avant-garage. Complete with broken punctuation, unidiomatic English, and the sort of printing errors that completely reverse intended meaning, it speaks, like the album, in tongues-in-cheek: "Thank you for purchasing Colossal Head, the latest in the Los Lobos line of beautiful music. Los Lobos has been producing outstanding beautiful music for listening pleasures for more years. Their work has been heralded. Steve Berlin thinks, 'I think we are the only of what we do. I think anyone sounds like us. I'm proud.'"

Village Voice, Apr. 16, 1996