Hate to say it, but with their new album The Ride it looks like Los Lobos have come down with Chieftains Syndrome.
This is a condition that happens to musicians who pack so many guest stars onto an album that it’s hard to tell who the “host star” is.
Can’t say I blame the band. If I was doing an album and my friends included Tom Waits, Richard Thompson, Elvis Costello, Mavis Staples etc., I’d be tempted to call on them for help too.
And so Los Lobos plays Latin sounds with Ruben Blades and Mexico’s Café Tacuba, gospel soul with Staples, British folk rock (!) with Thompson, weirdness with Waits, and Chicano funk with Little Willie G of the classic 1960s East L.A. band -- and Los Lobos inspiration -- Thee Moonlighters.
And what’s even stranger, The Ride has so many new versions of old Lobos tunes, with all these different singers at some points it seems like a tribute album.
Unlike aging comedians, aging rockers don’t have Friar’s Roasts. Instead, they make albums like these.
Los Lobos deserves a tribute album as much as anyone, but being that it’s been a couple of years since their last album, Good Morning Aztlan, I wanted to hear more new songs.
This is somewhat disappointing because when I saw Los Lobos in Austin a couple of months ago, the band sounded stronger than ever. I was hoping for an album that would twist my head.
On the bright side, there’s much worthwhile music here.
There’s a few songs without guest singers, showing that the band is in great form on its own. “Rita,” with its sweet steel guitar by Greg Leisz.
Both “Charmed” and “Hurry Tomorrow” (the latter co-written by Lobo Cesar Rosas and Grateful Dead songwriter Robert Hunter) are both tough, boiling blues tunes with lots of sax and guitar.
“Chains of Love” is closer to ‘60s Memphis soul, slow and bluesy. Garth Hudson of The Band is playing organ and there’s a crazy Hidalgo fiddle solo.
“Somewhere in Time,” a duet between David Hidalgo and Dave Alvin, featuring a Drifters/"Spanish Harlem” beat and Leisz’s hypnotic steel, almost sounds like a latter-day Righteous Brothers tune with baritone Alvin as Bill Medley and Hidalgo as Bobby Hatfield.
The Waits track, “Kitate” sounds like something off one of the Latin Playboys’ CDs. Like the music of that Lobos side project, this tune sounds like a surreal field recording from some Mexican or Central American street festival, with lots of percussion, horns and carnival organ. Waits scats and shams and growls in languages nobody speaks in a near call and response with Martha Gonzalez of the band Quetzal.
And the new version of “Wicked Rain” is sung by ’70s soul man Bobby Womack, as a part of a medley with Womack’s Blaxploitation movie title song, “Across 110th Street.”
On its own there probably wouldn’t have been a good reason to re-record “Wicked Rain,” a good, if not great, Rosas blues grinder. But coupled with Womack’s song, the whole track cooks.
“The Wreck of the Carlos Rey,” featuring Hidalgo trading verses with Thompson, is a rocking tune. But with its folk rock riffs and Thompson’s guitar, it sounds like something right off a Thompson album -- even though it's written by Hidalgo and Louie Perez.
The one truly misguided song here is Elvis Costello’s version of “Matter of Time,” the first song to ever indicate Los Lobos was more than just a high-energy goodtime band, but was in fact a great band.
The song is a conversion between a Mexican man and his wife right before the man leaves her to go to the U.S. to seek a decent future. It’s the story of this country and all its immigrants. “I’ll send for you, baby in just a matter of time.”
It’s a moment full of tenderness and uncertainty. But in the original 1984 version on How Will the Wolf Survive, the rhythm is upbeat and Steve Berlin‘s sax, is jaunty, giving a sense of optimism even when the singer wonders if he’s just pursuing an empty dream.
Costello’s version is slow and maudlin. Pretty, yes. But it sounds like a sad dirge. The promise of a new life, which propelled the original version, is completely missing here.
Despite this misstep, The Ride is, song for song, a pretty decent cruise. I just hope Los Lobos comes back soon full throttle with a new batch of songs and a downsized guest list.
*Terrell’s Sound World this week will feature a lengthy Los Lobos segment, including lots of cuts from The Ride, as well as old Lobos tunes, Latin Playboys, Los Super 7, Houndog
And don’t forget The Santa Fe Opry, country music as the good Lord intended it to sound, starting at 10 p.m. Friday on KSFR.