Wednesday, August 29, 2012


Twenty years ago, Los Lobos dropped a bomb on their fans, and folks who thought they had the band pegged.  Known for Mexicali sounds, roots-rockers and for covering La Bamba in The Buddy Holly Story, it was a restrictive view, the group pigeon-holed by their race.  Yes, I'm going to play the race card, because the reaction to Kiko was often disbelieve that these Angelinos could bring in so much art and whimsy to their sound.  Like they were supposed to play Richie Valens the rest of their career?

Kiko was, and is still, a masterpiece, sixteen cuts that defy simple descriptions such as blues and folk.  On paper, and perhaps at first, the bare songs were somewhat straightforward, albeit excellent pieces of writing.  Numbers such as That Train Don't Stop Here, Angels With Dirty Faces, Two Janes and When The Circus Comes are Grade-A examples of roots songwriting.  Then, the magic of those songs grew exponentially in the studio.  Working with the renowned producer Mitchell Froom and his co-conspirator, engineer Tchad Blake, the normal instrumentation of the band, or any band, was abandoned in favour of sonic experiments.  The group was wide open to whatever tricks and atmospheres the Blake/Froom duo came up with, and responded with exceptional playing.  There were backwards recordings, strange mellotron parts, and unique groupings of percussion instruments. The very sound of the album was perhaps its crowning achievement, although it wouldn't be the same if the songs hadn't been there in the first place.

The lyrics had much to do with the mood as well.  There were the observations, such as the Angels With Dirty Faces of the impoverished areas of East L.A.  Then there were the tales of imagination, none more striking than Kiko and the Lavender Moon, with all the power of a brilliant and poignant children's story, a kid who plays with the moon.  It has a poetic magic unlike any other song in the rock canon I can think of.  Place all of these elements together:  the great songs, the lyrics, expert players, studio wizardry, the mix of genres, and you have a true classic.

For the 20th anniversary, there's a trio of releases in celebration.  The original album gets an upgrade, with new liner notes, and five worthwhile bonus cuts:  two demos, and three live songs from a radio station gig at the time.  Then there's a live concert of the entire album from 2006, from start to finish.  It comes as either a DVD or a CD.  I recommend the DVD, because it also includes interview footage with the group, talking about how the songs were written and recorded.  The show itself is again excellent, and the band member admit they were nervous going in recreating the whole album, since it would be so tough.  They do an excellent job though, right down to fade-outs and delicate touches.  Best of all, after 20 years, it's been proven that Kiko sounds as fresh today as the day it came out.

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