It’s the rare breed of rock band that makes such meaningful music so deep into its career.
By Scott McLennan
Los Lobos enters its fifth decade together with a new album that is consistently great. It’s not that Los Lobos ever recorded a bad album. In fact, the legendary band from East L.A. makes records that fall along a spectrum that begins at “Good” and stretches to “Holy Moly!”
But it’s the rare breed of rock band that makes such meaningful music so deep into its career.
Gates of Gold is loaded with thoughtful craftsmanship and razor sharp playing, which is not unusual. What’s different is that this outing proffers plenty of crackling energy, the kind of voltage that was lacking on the band’s previous studio album, Tin Can Trust. These are songs that are alive and restless, even at points where the band becomes reflective, perhaps even nostalgic, singing about its legacy and the passing of time.
In the five years since Tin Can Trust, Los Lobos has joined the roster of 429 Records, which released the band’s wonderful live album Disconnected in New York City. And the group has been touring practically non-stop. So, while Gates of Gold is a studio album, the music sounds as if it was created spontaneously while the tape was rolling. It’s an organic approach that reflects Los Lobos’ dedication to spontaneity, its expansive spirit.
Los Lobos has always lovingly preserved its original roots in Mexican folk music and garage-rock while pushing its musical vision forward. But, over time, the band’s “roots” have started to grow into branches as Los Lobos drew authoritatively on blues and psychedelia traditions in ways that have made its music sound ever more interesting.
Los Lobos pulls its various musical interests together on Gates of Gold; the group’s sturdy musicianship anchors the album’s wide range of songs. The tunes jump from raucous rave-ups and gentle ballads to cumbia numbers sung in Spanish and textured art rock.
Storming out of the gate with “Made to Break Your Heart,” Los Lobos echoes Neil Young and Crazy Horse, no doubt a nod to the tours they did together a few years ago. The song lurches and moans as the guitars and rhythm section heat up until they turn to lava. “Too Small Heart” is another homage to classic rock, though in this case the hybrid song channels the Jimi Hendrix Experience, marrying guitar pyrotechnics and ‘Summer of Love’ pop.
Los Lobos benefits not only from a comfortable chemistry that comes from age, but boasts an impressive stylistic diversity. David Hidalgo, through his singing and guitar playing, sounds as if he is on a quest for ever higher truths on the album’s title track, as well as “Song of the Sun.” On the other side of the spectrum, Cesar Rosas turns things rowdy and confrontational as he leads the band through “Mis-Treater Boogie Blues” and “I Believed You So.”
The other Lobos — bassist Conrad Lozana, guitarist and drummer Louie Perez, keyboardist and saxophonist Steve Berlin — are able to do whatever is called for, from creating the ethereal atmosphere of “There I Go” to whipping up the block-party spirit of “Poquito Para Aqui” and “La Tumba.”
Clocking in at just over 40 minutes, Gates of Gold is not very long by today’s standards, but Los Lobos has entered its golden age — the band has made an album where every note counts.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene