Saturday, June 14, 2014

Los Lobos 1985-1986: An Essay in Discography

What I think of as the third phase of Los Lobos' career comprised the aftermath of How Will The Wolf Survive? and the run-up to and recording of their second album, By The Light Of The Moon. This took them two full years - the first album came out in late '84 and the second didn't come out until January '87.  And in that, they're once again not quite following the template for rock band careers.  They should have taken no more than twelve months to produce a follow-up.  How Will had been a critical favorite and almost a hit on college radio and the like - I was in high school at the time, not particularly immersed in underground music papers, and I remember reading and hearing a lot about it.  A late-'85 follow-up would have been a smart move, commercially.  But they took their time, and did it right.

In the interim they were touring heavily on that first album.  Nothing from that period has been officially released, but there's a perfect candidate for it on youtube:  a Canadian TV special filmed in Montreal on 4/22/85.  This is prime Lobos, and what's more it's full of rarities:  "Buzz, Buzz" (a Hollywood Flames oldie which they'd later record in the studio), the Howlin' Wolf classic "Three Hundred Pounds Of Joy," "Mighty Old Love" (a cover, but I can't figure who of), "The Town I Live In" (Thee Midnighters), and lo and behold, two years before they reimmortalized it, "La Bamba." This show is nothing short of a revelation.  The authority with which they rock Howlin' Wolf, the depth of the groove they get into on "Mighty Old Love," and the way they snap it straight into "La Bamba."  They're unstoppable.

Their cover of "Three Hundred Pounds Of Joy" actually made it to vinyl, but not this rendition.  They performed it live with Roomful of Blues on the latter's 1987 album Live At Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel.  Worth tracking down, but it's not quite as satisfying a version as the one from Montreal - it's shorter, and all those extra horns don't add anything that Steve Berlin's not already delivering on his own.

What the Roomful of Blues collaboration does is remind us just how much the band's critical acceptance was matched by their peer acceptance.  It's one of a long series of guest appearances that the Wolves made on other people's records, or that other people made on theirs.  In the period in question there are two others that I know about, each significant in its own way.

One is their collaboration with Ry Cooder on the traditional "Quatros Vicios," which he recorded for the Alamo Bay soundtrack in 1985;  it's widely available because it's on the El Cancionero box, but to me it's a little disappointing.  Rosas and Hidalgo get to sing, but Cooder himself handles the
accordion and bajo sexto parts - which is like asking Eric Clapton to sing on your record, but handling the guitar part yourself.  People wouldn't be making that kind of mistake much longer.

The other is the song "All Around The World Or The Myth Of Fingerprints," which closes off Paul Simon's Graceland album, released in 1986.  This would never show up on a Lobos compilation, but the thing is, it should.  Steve Berlin insists that the band wrote it, the music at least (he says nothing about the lyrics), and it's easy to believe him, because it sounds nothing like a Paul Simon song, and a hell of a lot like a song Los Lobos would have been working on to follow up "Will The Wolf Survive."  It has that kind of suspended-over-percussion gentle verse going into that chimey, anthemic chorus.  And of course the boys supply all the instrumental work on the song.  Regardless of how things went down between the artists, it's a great record, tight, crackling with energy, and I've always thought it was a key part of their '80s work. 

I know of one other rarity from this period, which is also easily obtained courtesy of the Cancionero box.  We've already heard their cover of the Fats Domino song "I'm Gonna Be A Wheel Someday" on the 1983 PBS special that celebrated their e.p.  They laid it down in the studio in 1986 for the soundtrack to the film A Fine Mess

There's a little live Lobos from '86 around, to complement the Montreal show.  I like this segment from a show in San Rafael on 11/21/86: not only does it include more cool covers ("Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher"! "Tequila"!), but it has them jamming with Carlos Santana.  Not quite a passing of the torch - there's not really a whole lot of similarity between what Santana does and what Los Lobos do.  But still it's a cool moment.

And that brings us to the second album, recorded in 1986 and released as the New Year (which would be Los Lobos' miracle year) of 1987 began.  By The Light Of The Moon was a much-labored-over album, by all accounts, and in the end all that work was overshadowed by the fluke success of La Bamba later in '87.  And that's an entirely different phase of the band's career.  So I like to try to hear the second album the way I heard it when I first bought it, when it first came out:  in isolation, with no inkling of what would come after.  Taken on those terms it's a beaut.  It's clearly trying to hit most of the notes the first album hit - you have the chiming-guitar anthem ("One Time One Night"), the rockabilly bruiser ("Shakin' Shakin' Shakes"), a Spanish number ("Prenda Del Alma"), and a bunch of chugging r&b with a Latin flavor.  But it feels no less original for that - rather, it just feels like this is a band that has staked out its territory, and knows how to work it.

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