Mexico Blues

Los Lobos moves from East L.A. to Chicago and the Mississippi Delta on Colossal Head

"We like fractured, broken sounds," says Los Lobos sax man Steve Berlin. "We're looking for that broken AM-radio sound, a certain poignancy that is more soulful, especially in this 32-bit digital world."

For Colossal Head, its first album of new material in four years, Los Lobos used an analog eight-track recorder usually favored by garage bands. "A lot of the songs started as demos from David [Lobos guitarist Hidalgo]'s eight-track Tascam, which we would use as basic tracks," says Berlin. "Like 'Life Is Good'--that is straight from his eight-track demo."

The new album's title is a reference to a series of ancient, sculpted stone heads in central Mexico. Forgoing the obvious archaeological illustration as cover art, the band instead chose the image of an ugly toy robot's head. Berlin muses that the title has also become an inside joke among band members as the name of an imaginary, Macarena-esque "dance craze" he describes as "sort of Al Gore with a Latin twist."

Colossal Head has a few Latin twists of its own, along with touches of Mexican accordion and Spanish-language singing--particularly the rave-up "Mas y Mas," which vocalist/guitarist Cesar Rosas spits out in breathless Spanglish. Overall, however, this recording marks the furthest Los Lobos has ventured from its trademark Mexican-folkloric sound; here, the members sound like musicians who have intently listened to and reinterpreted a wide, wild litany of modern and traditional forms.

This is especially true of the blues, as Rosas recognizes on "Can't Stop the Rain" when he sings, simply, "This ain't nothin' but the blues." The band has traveled through this territory before, even having collaborated with the great Willie Dixon, but Colossal Head is its most complete--and electrifying--departure into urban blues.

Grinding, slinking, pounding blues riffs wind in and out of the new songs, sometimes lilting into R&B, other times stomping into rock 'n' roll. Dixon and Howlin' Wolf are the patron saints of the undertaking, less a show of influences-on-parade than a wide-open musical assault from East L.A. via Chicago and Mississippi, with an avant-folk edge that recalls Tom Waits, and beats big enough to satisfy any boom-car hobbyist in South Central L.A.

The songs on the recording, Berlin says, were written quickly, mostly on the spot. "It was exciting not to know where the hell we were going," he says. "It was less crafted, more seat-of-the-pants, more like working up a vintage car than building a jet plane. We worked stripped-down, close to the bone, got stuff happening quickly and kept what was good."

Berlin says the band has worked up that impulsive, rapid-fire writing style by scoring films. "Soundtracks involve even more work than your own record, within less time. They help you think quickly and trust your first impressions. You get a cool idea and chase it around the room, and if there are good musicians in the room, you are likely to get something worth keeping. In a way, it is cutting corners, but you can only cut those corners because you put in hard time over the years. Anyway, your first idea is usually cooler than what you slave over endlessly."

The band members deliberately began courting soundtrack work a few years ago so they could earn a living without being on the road all the time. "For the first 20 years of my life, I would have paid to do this, and now I get paid to do it," says Berlin, who defected to Los Lobos from the early-'80s L.A. roots-punk outfit the Blasters.

"The only hard part is, as you get older, having families. I have a 3-year-old and another baby on the way. These are the most precious years, and it's hard to pack up and leave and say, 'See ya in a while.' I live in Seattle now (the other guys are all still in East L.A.), and it's no different for me than all the guys up here who go to Alaska for the fishing season."

Los Lobos' soundtrack credits thus far include scores for Mi Vida Loca, a film about female Chicano gang members in Los Angeles; Robert Rodriguez's highly stylized, border-town action flick Desperado; and the recent Keanu Reeves romantic-comedy dud Feeling Minnesota.

The band's most famous soundtrack work, of course, was its electric cover of the Mexican folk standard "La Bamba" for the movie of the same name, a biography of '50s Chicano pop star Ritchie Valens. That single, which featured a scorching guitar solo by David Hidalgo, shot to No. 1 in the summer of 1987. Instead of cashing in on the sudden notoriety with a commercial follow-up album, however, Los Lobos released La Pistola y el Corazon, an album of traditional Mexican songs that showcased Hidalgo's wonderfully haywire fiddling, and earned Los Lobos its second Grammy. The band won its first in 1983, taking the honors in the new category of "Best Mexican-American Performance" for its song "Anselma" off the EP . . . And a Time to Dance. When that recording came out, Los Lobos was still a barrio band in East L.A., playing Mexican folk music on traditional instruments at restaurants, weddings and parties.

Los Lobos played for quite a different crowd this summer on the Furthur tour. Putting "Just Another Band From East Los Angeles" on a post-Jerry Deadhead tour bill isn't as strange as it may sound--the band has been a favorite of neohippies for years, and its signature cover song is a doodling version of the Dead classic "Bertha."

Berlin says the band was enlightened by its Furthur festival experience to start switching up its sets more than usual. "People were following the tour around, so it became especially important to vary our show, to get a fresh take every night," he says. "Playing 35-minute sets all summer also geared us up to do our tour, where we can play two hours if we feel like it and cover a lot of ground."

Los Lobos is scheduled to perform on Friday, November 15, at Electric Ballroom in Tempe, with Wild Colonials. Showtime is 9 p.m. (all ages).

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