Thursday, September 02, 2010

Los Lobos' "Tin Can Trust"

Back in the Reagan '80s, when I was Guarding Freedom's Frontier and Broooce and Prince were the straight media's duly anointed rockers o' the day, I was of the opinion that Los Lobos were the best American band. Sure, the mass-ass audience knew them primarily as the band that covered Ritchie Valens' pachuco pop for the '87 La Bamba biopic, but like Texas faves Doug Sahm and Brave Combo, these East L.A. Chicanos swallowed several musical traditions (rock, R&B of both the Jimmy Reed and Marvin Gaye strains, y'allternative, Tex-Mex, Mexican folk music) whole and could be equally expressive in any of 'em.

While gruff-voiced, dark-shaded Cesar Rosas fronted the band on their first couple of radio hits ("Don't Worry Baby," "Shakin' Shakin' Shakes"), it was hulking David Hidalgo's plaintive yelp and stinging, slash-and-burn guitar (imagine an Angeleno Peter Green) that emerged as Los Lobos' dominant voices. More to the point, Hidalgo and Louie Perez were a strong songwriting team, crafting evocative slice-of-life vignettes of struggle, grief, loss, and separation from loved ones that spoke directly to the Mexican-American immigrant experience. Their records got better and better, culminating in 1992's Kiko, which might just be the first magic realist rock 'n' roll record.

After that, I lost the thread for awhile. Los Lobos switched labels, scattered to do solo projects, developed an alternate career as children's entertainers, and had a return-to-form with 2006's The Town and the City. This year's Tin Can Trust appears at a moment when a segment of white America is panicking at the prospect of no longer being a majority within a decade or so and struggling to figure out how to create some kind of apartheid here (even though our Constitution and history are generally progressive when it comes to inclusion and enfranchisement).

Not that Hidalgo, Perez and their crew should have to shoulder the Brown Man's Burden, but the opening "Burn It Down" sounds like nothing more than the sound of a tinderbox about to explode, down to the self-immolating solo at the end. "On Main Street," which follows, is a gently loping paean to neighborhood and community, a vibe which continues with "Yo Canto." The title track's a trying man's blues for a sluggish economy, something anybody can relate to.

"Jupiter Or the Moon" is a somber cinematic soundscape, tinged with longing and regret, featuring a choked, jazzy solo from Hidalgo.

"Do the Murray" is a throwaway instrumental, followed by a couple of cuts evocative of the Grateful Dead, with whom Los Lobos famously shared stages and whose "Bertha" they once covered on a tribute album. Here, Rosas collaborates with longtime Dead lyricist Robert Hunter on "All My Bridges Burning," which returns to the opener's theme, and they cover the San Fran band's "L.A. Fadeaway," which they imbue with a muscular strut J. Garcia and Co. could never muster.

Things lag a little with "The Lady and the Rose," an archetypal Los Lobos "angel" song, but pick back up with the sprightly Tejano polka "Mujer Ingrata," and finish strong with "27 Spanishes," a gritty Aztec blues that chronicles the collision of the Spanish and the indigenous Americans, concluding on a lighthearted note: "later they became muy friendly / and their blood was often mixed / now they all hang out together / and play guitars for kicks."

Said it before, mean it now: the best American band. Tin Can Trust might not be their strongest work, but it's still good enough to pull this old '80s fan back in.


Anonymous katboy said...

Saw them at Caravan of Dreams years and years ago. It was awesome, on the same level as Buena Vista Social Club in Santa Fe, NM.

10:24 AM  

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