"You don't hear Chicano shipwreck songs every day." That's keyboardist-saxophonist Steve Berlin of Los Lobos speaking of "Wreck of the Carlos Rey" from the band's latest disc. Taking a cue from the Chieftains, the roots-rockers have assembled a multigenre assortment of guest artists: Only four of the 13 tracks don't have "featuring" on the liner notes.
With other artists, this approach often seems like an artistic shortcut, leading to muddy, muddled music, but the Los Lobos guys, who took the producer's seat for the first time with "The Ride," know their route well. After 30 years of making music and 20 years of making albums, they feel free to deviate from Mapquest.
The band's camaraderie and charisma always shine through, even when the players are far from East L.A. Richard Thompson, trading vocals and lashings of guitar with David Hidalgo, storms up an otherworldly sound -- neither English folk nor "Yellow Moon" -- on "Carlos Rey." And many of the other collaborations are equally inspired. Dave Alvin's sweet, dreamy reading of "Somewhere in Time" is the perfect soundtrack to the world's most melancholy slow dance. On "Someday," Mavis Staples, as usual, makes heaven seem like a really hot date. Even throwaway tracks such as "Charmed" -- supposedly inspired by Hidalgo's favorite TV series -- have the grungy ambiance of the street cat who would never don a borrowed jacket to hang out in some fancy sit-down joint.
"Rita" puts that too-cool-for-school dude into emotional paralysis, and the result, propelled by Cougar Estrada's aggressive drums, Greg Leisz's yearning pedal steel and Hidalgo's lost-boy vocals, is a standout. And the first and last tracks, "La Venganza de Los Pelados" (featuring Cafe Tacuba) and "Chains of Love," are so hook-laden they'll bring you back around for repeated listenings. If this is what resting on laurels sounds like, Los Lobos is hardly resting in peace.
-- Pamela Murray Winters