Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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East L.A.'s Los Lobos were no kids by the time punk scenesters told the world about them in 1983, and though "La Bamba" made their name, they never fit a Mexican pigeonhole any better than they had their original rockabilly or "roots" one. If anything, they were a quality arena-rock band who broke too late, always more stolid rhythmically and ambitious lyrically than their image suggested, and always less fun, too.

That changed with 1994's Latin Playboys experiment, where David Hidalgo and Louie Perez stretched out in a songful sound collage reminiscent tactically of U2's playfully postmodernist Achtung Baby and Zooropa, only less forced. Their new Colossal Head (Warner Bros.) splits the difference between the two approaches. There's plenty of show guitar and loud drums, and the lyrics are both more poetic and more literal than the Latin Playboys'. But the predictability that always cut into Los Lobos's pleasure quotient is gone. You never know what instrument or texture will hook the next track--accordion or TV announcer or echo or chorale or any of a panoply of guitar noises. You only know the hook will come.


Ruby Braff is a cornetist in his late sixties who respects the melody and not much else, Ellis Larkins an equally seasoned pianist who's made his living accommodating strong-minded players like Braff, not to mention blase lounge audiences, without kowtowing to them. On Calling Berlin, Vol. 1 (Arbors) these two old pros honor 15 Irving Berlin songs, some very famous and some relatively obscure, without kowtowing to them. The combination of material and attitude is exquisite.


On The Road Goes On Forever (Liberty), Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson join forces as the Highwaymen. A few of the 10 songs are about living outside the law, but most of them are about growing old, which by now they know much more about--a knowledge they have the grace to convey with something approaching candor.

Playboy, Feb. 1996


Jan. 1996 Mar. 1996