In the pop music industry’s pigeonholed universe, ethnicity is a double-edged sword. Groups rooted outside the mainstream are often celebrated for their novelty and credibility, yet stuck in a ghetto of limited, fringe appeal.
Los Angeles’ Los Lobos based their sound on a distinctive blend of rock & roll and influences from their Mexican-American heritage. They attained commercial success by playing the songs of Ritchie Valens, and won a 1983 Grammy for best Mexican-American performance. But while their latest album is filled with ethnic flavoring, very little of it hails from south of the border.
Since making 1988’s all-Spanish-language La Pistola y El Corazón, Los Lobos have transmuted into something of a multicultural Everyband. On The Neighborhood, the quintet portions out Cajun, country, Chicago blues, and gritty R&B, all with easy skill and conviction (not to mention singer- guitarist David Hidalgo’s striking violin contributions). The results are, to say the least, diverse.
”Down on the Riverbed” has a swampy Little Feat/New Orleans feel; ”I Walk Alone” lays blistering guitar into a hip-shaking boogie. Following ”Deep Dark Hole” (nonsense lyrics sung over a track that resembles Johnny Cash records), there’s a frantic cover of Staxman Jimmy McCracklin’s ”Georgia Slop” that twists like crazy. The record also includes tender acoustic lullabyes (”Little John of God,” ”Be Still”), a crisp bit of Western country-rock (”The Giving Tree”), and a devastating horn-tinged Chicago blues (”I Can’t Understand,” cowritten by the venerable Willie Dixon). Amazingly, none of these efforts sound hollow or clumsy — Los Lobos grab the styles firmly and make them sound like their life’s work. Despite the disconcerting lack of focus, what’s in this musical melting pot is mighty tasty. B+