The Town and the City
I know it’s uncool to admit this among rock critics but Los Lobos lost me sometime around 1992’s Kiko, the album that is almost universally regarded as their masterpiece. While I could appreciate their desire to expand their musical palette and experiment with new sounds, at the time I heard nothing on that record to compare to the catchy, roots-rock thrills of past glories like “One Time One Night” from 1987’s By the Light of the Moon or “Will the Wolf Survive?” from 1984’s How Will the Wolf Survive? The band’s latest (their 13th studio album) admittedly hews closer to the experimental sound of Kiko than it does their roots-rock-oriented stuff, but perhaps it’s an indicator of how much I’ve grown as a music listener that I can appreciate The Town and the City for what it is — a collection of great songs from an amazingly talented band firing on all creative cylinders.
It’s clear from track one here that these master craftsmen — with the able assistance of producer Tchad Blake — are synthesizing innovative sounds from a diverse core of influences. David Hidalgo’s soulful, mournful vocals color the gently throbbing “The Valley.” The experimental blues “Hold On” stirs up a haunting groove, dark but mellow in its execution. Hidalgo sings about “killing myself to survive.” The blues are a touchstone on the romantic ballad “If You Were Only Here Tonight” as well. “What am I to do/ When the clock says half past two/ Do I stare out in the dark?/ or try to look for you,” Hidalgo sings. And “Two Dogs & A Bone” is more of a jump-blues rocker.
A distorted guitar figure leads the upbeat “The Road to Gila Bend,” perhaps the closest thing you’ll find here to the early roots-rock years. Horns and percussion enliven the swinging dance tune, “Chuco’s Cumbia,” which Cesar Rosas sings in a form of Spanglish slang called Pachuco Calo. Heavy organ and electric guitars color “No Puedo Mas,” a Chicano rock number that reveals the band’s East L.A. roots. “Luna,” on the other hand, offers a somewhat twisted take on the traditional sounds of Mexico. Los Lobos give it a psychedelic spin. Indeed many of the tracks on the record explore psychedelica with guitars that occasionally bring to mind The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High.”
But the soul music of the 1960s is also an influence on tracks like “Don’t Ask Why” and “Free Up,” which a great singer like Hidalgo can knock out of the park. The organ-tinged “Little Things” even recalls Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale.” And the two songs from which the album takes its name echo the opening tracks. “The Town” evokes a smooth groove as Hidalgo sings about the dark side of a hometown that seemed more innocent when he was growing up, while “The City” explores the dark side of urban nightlife against an appropriately ominous musical backing.
It all adds up to a sublimely entertaining disc and an eclectic showcase for a multi-talented band still probing the boundaries of its sound after so many years together. It even makes me want to hear Kiko again, along with the Los Lobos albums that came after it to hear what I’ve been missing all these years.
Los Lobos: www.loslobos.org