Those people who still pigeonhole Los Lobos as a Latino-rock band are going to be surprised by the East L.A. quintet's new album, "The Neighborhood" (Slash/Warner Bros.). It opens with a grungy, Chicago-style 12-bar blues, follows with a fiddle-led Appalachian square dance tune and goes on to triumph in the garage-rock, honky-tonk, Southern soul and gospel genres. The album is a bold claim by these second-generation immigrants that they are Americans, and that all of America's culture belongs to them.
Los Lobos' command of all these musics is so compelling and so rare that one has to reach all the way back to the Band for a useful analogy. Like that Ontario quintet, Los Lobos are semi-outsiders who have enthusiastically embraced the roots of American culture. Both groups not only mastered those sources with virtuoso musicianship but also turned them into some of the most evocative, powerful songwriting of each band's day.
It makes perfect sense, then, that Levon Helm, the Band's Arkansas drummer, should show up as a guest singer and mandolinist on "The Neighborhood." He appears on two of the album's softer, more lyrical pieces: "Emily," a fiddle tune about an irrepressible yearning for forbidden love, and "Little John of God," a slow, quiet hymn about a young boy in a wheelchair. Helm's Ozark drawl blends perfectly with David Hidalgo's keening Latino tenor, as if their shared faith in the optimistic spirit of rock-and-roll has overwhelmed their regional differences.
John Hiatt is also a guest singer on two cuts, and Louis Perez's lyrics for "The Neighborhood" resemble Hiatt's deceptively simple writing; the language comes from the vernacular of country and R&B, but the words yield an unexpected dividend of mystery and meaning. Perez's lyrics carry a greater weight than Hiatt's, though, for his songs capture whole communities and archetypal situations rather than just eccentric individuals. Like Bob Dylan's writing for "The Basement Tapes" and "John Wesley Harding," Perez's new songs have the timeless, boiled-down essence of parables.
The album's title cut describes contemporary America's cities in succinct images of a crackhead, an unwed mother, an aging alcoholic and an overworked domestic, but without a trace of sensationalism. Instead the deadpan depictions catch the pain of these very ordinary victims, and the chorus offers a heartfelt prayer for peace in the neighborhood over a honking horn part.
The honky-tonk "Deep Dark Hole" describes a dangerous abyss that could be drugs, violence or greed, but which is ominous enough just as a big, black hole. Other songs offer vivid, biblical images of redemption: angels dancing in the hallway, children running with ribbons in their hands, blue waters gushing through a dry gully. The opening blues stomp describes a marriage proposal "Down on the Riverbed" accompanied by contradictory signs: "a red-tailed hawk circled overhead," but then came "a monster cloud like a big black hand."
Perez writes with his childhood buddy Hidalgo, who sings with the aching purity of an Aaron Neville or Al Green. Los Lobos' other lead singer, Cesar Rosas, handles the wilder roadhouse rockers: "I Can't Understand," an exasperated blues that Rosas wrote with Chicago blues laureate Willie Dixon; the similar "I Walk Alone" by Hidalgo and Perez; "Georgia Slop," a dance song by West Coast blues legend Jimmy McCracklin; and the similar "Jenny's Got a Pony" by Hidalgo and Perez. Driven by bassist Conrad Lozano, baritone saxophonist Steve Berlin and guest drummer Jim Keltner, these basic, no-nonsense party songs deliver a big wallop and set off the more lyrical parables perfectly.
Los Lobos performs Nov. 9 at Lisner Auditorium.
'Texas Tornados' San Antonio is one of the world's great musical cities, a place where Mexican mariachi, Anglo country music and German polkas collide to create the wonderful musics known as conjunto, Tex-Mex country and Tex-Mex rock-and-roll. The founding father of the Spanish-language dance music known as conjunto was the West Side's Santiago Jiminez (whose "Ay Te Dejo en San Antonio" was later covered by Los Lobos), and his tradition has been ably carried on by his two accordion-playing sons, Flaco and Santiago Jr.
One of the young West Siders, Augie Meyers, found that he could translate the bleating accordion of conjunto to cheap electric organ for the purposes of rock-and-roll. In 1964 he hooked up with an enthusiastic Anglo singer named Doug Sahm and a crazy Cajun producer named Huey Meaux; the Sir Douglas Quintet was born and, with it, Tex-Mex rock-and-roll. Meaux also made a star out of Freddy Fender, a Latino crooner who adapted easily to the English-language country market.
Now all that rich history has been brought together in one all-star package called "Texas Tornados" (Reprise). The Texas Tornados, who appear at the Birchmere Sunday, are officially Flaco Jiminez, Meyers, Sahm and Fender, but the album also includes such Sir Douglas Quintet alumni as Speedy Sparks, Louie Ortega and George Rains. It doesn't break any new ground -- the musicians mostly revive the staples of their live shows -- but it's the best possible introduction to San Antonio music.
Many of the songs slip back and forth between English and Spanish as easily as they slip between bar-band rock, honky-tonk and traditional conjunto. Just to hear Meyers's Vox organ double Jiminez's accordion riffs is enough of a treat to justify this album. The delights of Sahm braying, "Who were you thinking of when we were making love last night?" or Meyers suggesting, "If you got the dinero, I got the Camaro" over a bouncy, bleating two-step are just gravy.