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Los Lobos

Done up in the style of a '50s-era movie poster, all flat paint and a grab bag of typescript, the cover of this boxed set says all that needs to be said. There's a smiling guitarist looking over a nighttime scene, palm trees, a silhouetted couple leaning in a loose embrace against a parked car . . . and in the air above, two ominous circling helicopters accidentally providing romantic spotlight illumination.

Even in the late 1960s, when they were teenagers playing a kind of folk-roots Mexican repertoire, the members of Los Lobos were all about the word play, the cool humor, the witty reference. Their full name, Los Lobos del Este (de Los Angeles) is actually a riff on a late-'60s Mexican norteño band called Los Lobos del Norte, or Wolves of the North. So to dub themselves the Wolves of the East (Los Angeles) signified a kind of urbane twist on music based in Mexican folklore.

And how. Consisting of four discs spanning 23 years, El Cancionero: Más y Más is, to speak plainly, a jaw-dropping collection of styles and talents. Starting with stone traditional versions of "Guantanamera" and "Sabor a Mí" from their 1977 debut Just Another Band From East L.A. (in homage to Frank Zappa), the playlist rapidly moves to the mix of boogie, jump blues and roots-rock that defined Los Lobos' sound in 1984, when the album Will the Wolf Survive? became a breakthrough hit. Heavy on both swing arrangements and the ringing stringed instruments that had been Los Lobos' trademark since its acoustic days, Will the Wolf Survive? was as unlikely a smash as any band could have produced, but the album provided their lasting entree into the public mind (they'd been critics' and locals' favorites for several years beforehand).

If that album, or 1987's cover of "La Bamba," is the last you've heard of the Lobos, brother, what you've missed. David Hidalgo and Louie Pérez have been working in the Latin Playboys, an experimental noise-and-melody outfit; Cesar Rosas put out a solo album, Soul Disguise, in 1999; Steve Berlin has been producing everything under the sun; and Conrad Lozano lends his guitarrón (you've seen them -- looks like an acoustic guitar with a thyroid condition, makes everyone who plays it look three feet tall) where it's needed on everything else. Through it all, Los Lobos has been the conceptual hub that's linked these five musicians. Several of those solo and outside projects are documented here; for the first time, fans can hear non-Lobos endeavors complicating and influencing the band's work (particularly on the fourth disc, 1996-2000).

What's really astonishing about El Cancionero, though, is the way it documents just how talented and diverse these five bandmates have always been, even in their ostensibly traditionalist incarnation. The members of Los Lobos play every instrument ever invented by human hands. They burn through covers of "Tomorrow Never Knows," "Try Me," Richard Thompson's "Down Where the Drunkards Roll," "What's Going On," "I Wan'na Be Like You" from Disney's The Jungle Book, "Rip It Up," "Volver, Volver," "The Christmas Song" and a handful of others equally impressive. They collaborate with Freddy Fender, Money Mark, Sheryl Crow, Ry Cooder, Paul Burleson . . . space prevents us.

Though at four discs it's a definite investment, and probably not for the casual listener -- the uninitiated will want to start with Will the Wolf Survive?, 1992's Kiko (arguably the band's best studio album) or the 1993 two-disc anthology confusingly titled Just Another Band From East L.A. -- there's more than enough uncollected and otherwise hard-to-find material on El Cancionero: Más y Más to interest the serious Lobos fan.