Monday, July 28, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #110 - Los Lobos – Kiko

For many years it has been my contention that Los Lobos are the best band in America. If this is true then Kiko is exhibit A. Arriving in 1992, this L.A. band had already released eight albums to an increasing fan base (thanks in no small part to the music they provided for the hit movie La Bamba) and steady critical praise. But they were essentially a Chicano roots-rock band that didn’t stray too far from the traditions of 50’s, 60’s and 70’s rock and roll. Suddenly with Kiko the band was reinvented (much in the same way and at the same time as Tom Waits) as a multi-headed, avant-garde, ethno-American modern music amalgam defying expectation and offering an enticing glimpse into the future of a socially diverse, progressive music world where poetry, art, song and ethnic expression are all part of a free cultural landscape owned equally by all citizens. Kiko is an album of enormous ambition, and all of it is delivered with integrity and beauty.

“Dream In Blue” is a perfect opener as it sets forth the proposition that this will be a rare and heavenly listening experience. Steve Berlin is playing a sweet flute line instead of his typical sax, and it is immediately clear this is no ordinary Los Lobos song

Peeped inside an open door
Looked around don't know what for
Way too bright could hardly see

Oh no, can't believe it
Oh yeah, could almost see it
In a dream in blue

Flew around with shiny things
When I spoke, I seemed to sing
High above floating far away

Los Lobos in 1992 – photo by Aaron Rapoport
Somehow, the simple, fun rock band from East L.A. had tapped into a deep consciousness. The song and the lyrics unfold to hint at a world of mystery and color. There are several reasons this Los Lobos album sounded so different. Producer/engineer team Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake were fully on board as creative partners after their successful work together on La Bamba. This modern duo brought a new and exciting palette of sounds to Los Lobos that especially found resonance in the blossoming songwriting partnership of drummer Louie Perez and lead guitarist/vocalist David Hidalgo. It was also a slow shift internally that accounted for the band’s new direction. Obvious front man Cesar Rosas was showcased less with only one songwriting credit and a much smaller presence than on previous albums. His one contribution is the concert favorite “That Train Don’t Stop Here” which presents him in his best light; it rocks hard and won’t get out of your head. However it is Perez’ barrio beatnik lyrics which demonstrate the breadth of the band’s art; they are moving and insightful and each one speaks to both the universal experiences we all share like; family-life, social convention and spirituality, but they also plumb the dark recesses of individual experience with a poetic resonance that few rock musicians master. After experiencing the songs of Kiko one feels an intimacy with many of the details of Perez’ private life and thought. For his part, David Hidalgo steps to the forefront as one of the great American musicians of the 20th century (and beyond) singing almost every vocal on the album with wild bravado on rockers like “Whiskey Train,” “Reva’s House,” “Short Side Of Nothing” or with perfect tender restraint as on his greatest ballad “When The Circus Comes.” He sings this beautiful song of growing up and loss with all the sadness and mystery that only real experience can bring.
Although Kiko is 16 songs long, it is endlessly compelling because it encompasses so much stylistically and emotionally. From the indescribable lilt of the title track which combines an Ellington-like horn chart set against a Mexican accordion line, bolstered by cowbells and snaky organ to describe the internal life of a confused young man, to the poignant beauty of “Saint Behind The Glass” which paints a stunning picture describing -what else - a stunning picture, this album delivers on song after song, as Mitchell Froom keeps everything simultaneously loaded with interesting sounds and noises, yet free of sonic clutter and remarkably focused on what is so great about this band: David Hidalgo’s world class voice and guitar and Louis Perez’ mature and poetic lyrics. Kiko is so full of great songs and fantastic playing it almost seems like the summation of a career or a greatest hits album. But it isn’t. Los Lobos followed Kiko up with the equally adventurous and accomplished Colossal Head and embarked on another quarter century of touring and albums that finds them to this day constantly reinventing themselves. Based on the power of this particular collection of songs, however, Los Lobos’ place in history is assured.

- Paul Epstein

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