Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Sounds of Known Origin

Long before the Latin Playboys were imaginable, Los Lobos rode into the rock mainstream on a myth. They were "just another band from East L.A.," the title of their self-released debut LP proclaimed in 1978, and five years later their coming-out EP on Slash boasted an equally definitive title: ". . . And a Time To Dance." Although L.A. had its Chicano punks--in Los Illegals, the Plugz, Alice Bag, even Black Flag--that wasn't Los Lobos' style of cred. They were pure 'hood--a band for dancing, a Saturday-night band, a club band like it used to be.

They could be exciting live, too--it was a vibrant Irving Plaza gig, with postpunk aesthetes doggedly shaking their asses in the rear, that unlocked the EP's uptempo r&b for me. But there was too much ethnic stereotyping in this myth. Though Los Lobos' backgrounds were unimpeachably working-class (sons of a trucker, a mechanic, a punch-press operator, a department-store cashier), they weren't just a simple little dance band from L.A. CA. They were aesthetes themselves. Finding that the FM rock they dug didn't work in their teen groups, they hit upon the far from obvious idea of taking up the traditional instruments that sold cheaper than Strats in local pawnshops; by the late '70s they were playing more colleges than clubs. Instead of eclectic, that gargantuan rock cliche, call this approach absorbent, curious, loving, with parallels in a Mexican folk culture that delights in the found commercial. But don't be surprised when its inventors prove less than dedicated to making people dance, evolving into a slightly stolid rock band complete with graver songwriting, duller beats, and an earnest attempt to parlay "La Bamba"'s eternal Saturday night into an album of Mexican acoustica. Because David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, and Louie Pèrez can all sing, play, and write, they were never less than a good rock band. But by 1990's The Neighborhood they were in a rut, and you could see it live. At the Bottom Line in 1992, where the highlight was Ritchie Valens's "Let's Go" rather than anything from Kiko, the drunk demanding encores to my left could have been cheering the Doors at the Fillmore East, Wishbone Ash at the Palladium, Tom Petty at the Beacon.

By Kiko, supposedly, Los Lobos were out of their rut. Although The Neighborhood was actually longer on guitarròns, bajo-sextos, and such, new producer Mitchell Froom, aided materially by wizard engineer Tchad Blake, transmuted the band's folkier textures into a kind of amniotic sound-surf, sustaining their rock noises and rhythms in swells of modest accordion, rippling guitar arpeggio, whiskey-breathed brass, and articulated percussion. Yet though it's true that Kiko never got as mawkish as The Neighborhood's disabled-child homily "Little John of God"--"He comes to see us from up above/To touch our hearts with special [get it?] love"--let's just say that their Bottom Line show was all too well-suited to a band that devoted one title apiece to big fat train, rain, angel, and dream tropes. The true breakout came in 1994, midway through a four-year hiatus from touring, when the band--for two decades a unit comprising the three above-named plus bassist Conrad Lozano, with saxophonist Steve Berlin enlisting in 1983--spun off Hidalgo and Pèrez's Latin Playboys.

Los Lobos were pure 'hood, all right. In fact, they enjoyed the barrio so much--Perez once cut short a conversation with journalist John Morthland so he could get to a PTA meeting--that they jettisoned the club-band myth and got off the road. Like good aesthetes they devoted themselves instead to three soundtracks, a children's record, some tribute tracks, and a two-CD retrospective that once again dubbed them, yeah sure, Just Another Band From East L.A. And along with Froom and Blake, Hidalgo and Pèrez constructed an album that began where Kiko left off--an album that patterned sounds of unknown origin into syncopated trap and conga grooves, an album that flowed and reprised and modulated its guitar distortions and murky vocal mixes, an album that morphed song forms toward the overheard, an album that made atmosphere and structure the main things you listened for, an album that avoided grand themes and never rocked out. Those for whom Los Lobos were the great brown hope of straight rock, including resident bluesman Rosas, distrusted its impressionistic-surrealistic vagaries. But though Latin Playboys and its new five-years-later follow-up Dose are arty for sure, maybe even genteel in their calculatedly unkempt way, they demonstrate that now and then arty can be like its fraternal twin pretentious--a precondition of something genuinely difficult and beautiful.

In an era littered with nondescript soundscapes, both albums share less with Kiko (although not 1996's Colossal Head) than with the few landmark scenic ones--Tricky's Maxinquaye, Endtroducing . . . DJ Shadow, even Arto Lindsay's Mundo Civilizado. But unlike technophile Tricky, who quickly 86'd songs altogether, rock and rollers Hidalgo and Pérez couldn't stay away. That's why Dose seems more a collection of tracks than a living entity like Latin Playboys, but it's also why both Playboys records are something new in the world. Making something of the preposterous musique concrète notion that sounds reflect the life of the people more truly than elitist notes, they evoke everyday street culture with bicycle bells, bird tweets, vrooms and honks and revs and rumbles, argument and byplay and revelry and casual chit-chat, and, most important, the garbled layering that inflects all sounds as they are usually heard, including the musical sounds that still dominate the Playboys' mix. But out of this quiet clamor, both natural outgrowth and blessed relief, emerge little melodies that seem deeply familiar even to a non-Chicano--cultural, tipico, imprinted in memory and collective subconscious. Crucially, the scale is small, the style of display plain. These guys have always favored buttoned-up flannel shirts over show suits, and for this project they keep their Spanish-romantic attraction to grand metaphors under control. Where the juxtapositions of rock en español are garish, these are subtle whether they're sudden or graduated, subsumed in a whole that isn't any more seamless than an old pair of pants, or any more motley either--as complex and convincing a representation of the "folk music" gestalt as Harry Smith's.

With its Hidalgo-Pèrez train song and its Rosas rain song, its tropical-style salsa and its Santana-style jam, Colossal Head had a comparable sound and feel while remaining a Los Lobos album. Though Lobos's 1996 Mercury Lounge show only took off halfway through, when Hidalgo picked up his accordion, it jacked the crowd into an elation with more head in it than the automatic ecstasy I'd encountered at the Bottom Line. And at the Guinness Fleadh last June, they lit up a soccer stadium, tempos faster and interactions edgier from salsa to polka to hard boogie. The implicit disruptions of the mid-'90s seemed resolved at a higher level of commitment. And then came not only Dose but Rosas's Soul Disguise and something called Houndog, not to mention Los Lobos's deep-mixed, steady-rolling This Time, due in July.

Hidalgo--whose countless instruments, grainy tenor, and pungent guitar make him the group's supertalent--acknowledges no limits; I haven't even mentioned Los Super Seven, where he and Rosas join Joe Ely, Freddy Fender, and guess how many others in predictable pursuit of the heritage the Playboys juice up so obliquely. Houndog was cut in the home studio of a self-described Canned Heat and John Mayall veteran named Mike Halby who doesn't show up on any of either's numerous records--and whose idea of blues singing is a despondent simulation of a John Lee Hooker 45 at 33. Concerned that I'd missed the point, I made sure to catch them at South by Southwest, where Halby proved a smug Jerry Garcia lookalike and Hidalgo proved too kind a friend. But the next night Rosas, with his sunglasses after dark and his all-Chicano guitar/accordion-bass-keybs-drums band, proved a hipster motherfucker. I'd slotted his first solo album, where the nine songs he wrote or cowrote outnumbered all he'd put on Los Lobos's '90s catalogue, as sour roots, rocker's revenge. But from Ike Turner's "You Got To Lose" to a "That Train Don't Stop Here" that got a no-holds-barred Hammond B-3 solo out of his brother Rudy, Rosas propelled the r&b macho he's never gotten tired of into a realm that, minus a tenor, wasn't much less vibrant than Los Lobos at Irving Plaza back in the day.

Not that I suddenly love Soul Disguise. But shored up by Los Lobos's old club-band myth, it's been revealed to me the way the EP continues to be to this day--and The Neighborhood never will be. For just this reason I was worried as well as excited when told the Playboys would tour behind Dose. Happy to accept the Playboys as an aural hologram, I wasn't terribly eager to look Mitchell Froom in the horn-rims--his studio pallor might ruin the street effect forever. So I'm relieved to report that their show at Tramps was a messy triumph. Froom ensconced behind his soundbanks and Tchad Blake wrestling with his bass didn't add any presence to what the diminutive, scholarly-looking Pérez and the large, intensely congenial Hidalgo took to the stage. But the studio guys' geekiness was part of the fun, like the Christmas lights and paper roses and Japanese lanterns, like feyly feh opener Lisa Germano wielding her violin, like the drummer topping off the second encore with a half-church, half-carnival organ tunelet. It's reasonable to accuse the records of forced casualness, but these folks hadn't practiced enough to fake it.

Which is hardly to say they hadn't practiced at all--decades of stagecraft obviously underlay this translation. As with Dose, there were a few aimless moments, notably the poésie concrète of "Tormenta Boulevard," and the dynamics certainly weren't as delicate as on the records. But the Playboys weren't too proud to play loud sometimes, which in this context was close enough to rocking out, and they weren't so set on product promotion that they overplayed the newer material. One couplet from Dose rang out loud without excessive amplification: "Don't go figure, it's not about hip/You won't get it, it's a Latin trip." But it was a repeated line from "Crayon Sun" that defined them and the night: "This is what I am."

Village Voice, Apr. 27, 1999