Rock 'n' roll is a conservative art form; it goes back to basics and returns to its roots for its most vital, insightful moments. The new albums by the Ramones, Los Lobos and the Del-Lords are almost primitive in their use of a few guitar chords, thrashing drums and feverish yelps, yet they deliver the freshest, most satisfying moments of rock's fall season.
The Ramones single-handedly created the punk movement in 1976, sensing that the rock of the day was bloated compared with the adrenaline simplicity of countless garage bands of the mid-'60s. With their speeded-up tempos and staccato riffing, the Ramones showed the way for such worthy successors as the Clash, X and the Minutemen.
The Ramones themselves, though, were hampered by the fact that they only played one song. It was a good song -- fast and funny in its endless variations -- but it wasn't enough. They tried vainly to make the song sound different by bringing in producers like Phil Spector and Graham Gouldman. What saved the band was that bassist Dee Dee Ramone grew up and became a songwriter. His emergence as the band's dominant talent is showcased on "Too Tough to Die" (Sire, 9 25187-1), the best Ramones album ever.
The album's title track is a fast, stuttering hard-core punk anthem; lead singer Joey Ramone crows Dee Dee's lyrics about standing in a slam-dance pit with a "halo 'round my head." Dee Dee's "I'm Not Afraid of Life" is a slowed-down metal manifesto; the verses list plenty of reasons for fear, but the chorus repeats the title with unshakable conviction.
The Eurythmics' Dave Stewart produced the album's first single, "Howling at the Moon," which should be the band's first hit. The keyboard and electric percussion add a new dimension without obstructing the guitar-and-drums charge. The band's old drummer, Tommy "Ramones" Erdelyi, is back in the production saddle with Ed Stasium for the other songs. Joey's muscle-pop love song, "Daytime Dilemma," could be the follow-up hit, as could the Springsteenish "Chasing the Night" (which enjoys help from the Talking Heads' Jerry Harrison and Busta Jones).
Los Lobos' EP last year, produced by T-Bone Burnett and the Blasters' Steve Berlin, was a joyous celebration of all the possibilities of Mexican-American pop music. With the same producers, the L.A.'s Chicano quintet's new album, "How Will the Wolf Survive?" (Slash/Warner Brothers, 9 25177-1), is even more so.
With new member Steve Berlin bleating a rhythm and blues baritone sax to go with David Hidalgo's "border music" accordion, Hidalgo sings, "I just don't know why you won't take me for myself." Though he's singing to a woman, Hidalgo could be singing to a music industry that dismisses the band's strong Mexican flavor as "ethnic" or "roots" music. The sax-and-hand-claps beat of the drinking song, "I Got Loaded"; the huffing, puffing accordion of "I Got to Let You Know"; and the guitar-driven rave-up of "Don't Worry Baby" should get anyone off a chair and onto the dance floor.
The record's dominant tone is contagiously joyful, but "A Matter of Time" is the moving monologue of a Mexican migrant worker who must leave his family to cross the border. When Hidalgo sings of "a better life out there" to a traditional border ballad, his voice is lined with doubtful irony.
When Los Lobos play the 9:30 club Wednesday, the Del-Lords will open. On their debut album, "Frontier Days" (Enigma/EMI, ST-17133), the Del-Lords emerge as the Bronx equivalent of the Blasters. Relying on a similar brash brand of rockabilly and rhythm and blues, Scott Kempner's songs describe an American landscape full of hard times and fast nights, much as Dave Alvin's songs do for the Blasters.
Far from an imitation, though, the New York quartet has stripped down this roots sound to the basics of guitars, bass and drums. They compensate for the missing ingredients with a hard-hitting attack that focuses their energy. Frank Funaro's sharp-cracking drums are celebrated on Kempner's funny sing-along, "I Play the Drums," and the drums often rival the two guitars as a lead instrument. On "Livin' on Love" and "Burning in the Flame of Love," the vocal accents all jump off a drum smack.
The album's only cover tune is Alfred Reed's rockabilly chestnut, "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live," which the band charges through at a breathless clip. Kempner answers that song's question with his own guitar-motored "Get Tough." Twangy guitars and country harmonies back up his romantic "Pledge of Love"; blues guitar and shouts toughen up "Mercenary," his attack on Central American intervention.
All of Kempner's songs have sing-along melodies and dance-along rhythms, which give his social concerns the buoyancy they need. Produced by the Morells' Lou Whitney, this is as good a debut album as we've heard this year.