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Still Howling: Los Lobos and Buddy Ebsen love the night time.

Los Lobos knows how to tease and how to please on 'Colossal Head'

By Nicky Baxter

'BUDDY EBSEN Loves the Night Time," the closing number from Colossal Head (Warner Bros.), Los Lobos' first proper group effort in four years, tells a weird, wonderful story without any words whatsoever. The song is a final, unequivocal door slam on the band's earlier, easier-listening efforts. Compared to Los Lobos' contagiously exuberant and highly accessible revision of "La Bamba," "Buddy Ebsen" is as cantankerously idiosyncratic as the Beverly Hillbilly after whom the tune is titled.

A laconic, thudding beat--sounding for all the world like someone just up and grabbed an old battered oil drum and commenced whacking away at it--introduces "Buddy Ebsen." Set to a Southern-drawl shuffle, the number boasts some evil-but-sweet electric guitar in the manner of B.B. King before he took his ax uptown.

An understated but implacable electric piano comments on and goads the guitars' portentous, coiled-rattler wailing. David Hidalgo's fretwork builds, slowly but inexorably, toward a shuddering climax--but just as he's ready to get off for good, the plug is pulled. Frustrating for sure, but fun while it lasts. These guys really know how to tease, and how to please.

Quiet as it's kept, Los Lobos are arguably rock's finest ensemble; certainly, they are the most versatile. For starters, everyone (save for reedman and keyboardist Steve Berlin) plays some variant of guitar, from the standard Fender Stratocaster setup to guitarron (an enormous, oval-shaped acoustic bass), banjo and violin. Plainly, the Wolves are straight string freaks. While Hidalgo and drummer/vocalist Louie Pérez are the East L.A. band's primary songwriters, it is a genuine democracy; each member contributes to most matters musical. Hidalgo, Pérez, Berlin, Cesar Rosas (electric and acoustic guitar, vocals) and Conrad Lozano (electric bass, fretted and otherwise, guitarron, backing vocals) are equal partners.

Moreover, Los Lobos' knack for spinning tales addressing the lives of ordinary people is as keen as that of novelists Eduardo Galeano or Langston Hughes. Immigrants, blue-collar workers, wanderers, dreamers and believers--women and men whom you rarely hear about until they're laid off, or go off, in a desperate bid to affirm their humanity--all inhabit the ensemble's great big world. In welcome contrast to alternarock's dope-addled nihilism, Los Lobos' music is, at its core, uplifting, however corny that might sound.

There's a kind of spiritual undertow animating The Neighborhood (1990) and Kiko (1992), the band's last release presenting new material. Ironically, Kiko was not so much a rediscovery of identity as it was a bold redefinition of the question. The recording presented a leap out of the blues and into the black space where creativity either sinks or rises to the occasion.

Though not a concept album in the traditional sense, Kiko felt seamless, whole. What's more, the session was one of the few where art and rock attempted to mate and actually produced something worth remembering. Perhaps Los Lobos' brightest moment on disc, Kiko was also the unit's most experimental; the album did more than merely rock out, it made your head spin with wonder. Colossal Head kicks ass as well but offers even stranger delights.

THE NEW ALBUM offers still more proof that Los Lobos can rock it any way you like it; if, that is, you like your rock & roll with a blues foundation riven with the supernatural. Colossal Head practices more hoodoo than a Louisiana mojo worker.

"Revolution" is as funky as a Alabama chitlin shack. Straddling James Brown's heroically gut-bucket bass and drum world beat and the Meters/Neville Brothers' stutter-steppin' New Orleans soul (complete with Cajun-ish accordion), the song reeks of loose-bootied funk & roll. "Revolution" doesn't ask or inquire, it demands that you get up and jam.

The song's lyrics look back, not in anger but rather with a battle-fatigued kind of ambivalence. When Hidalgo croons, "Where did it go/Can't say that I know/Those times of revolution," you're not sure whether to turn pedantic or pitch a wang-dang doodle. Like the bulk of Colossal Head, "Revolution" is built on a dizzying confluence of fragmented, often opaque lyrics, underscored by a welter of soul-sonic musical textures.

"Everybody Loves a Train" is damned difficult to decipher with lyrics as enigmatic as an ancient Kemetic proverb from Africa. Here, as elsewhere, Los Lobos rely on the music to flesh out their elliptically rendered tales. In blues tradition, trains have always signified a multiplicity of emotions. Bluesmen and women from Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith to Big Maybelle and Jimi Hendrix have used it to conjure up everything from existential angst and desolation to a symbol of change, from dirt-poor to city riches, from Dixieland's hooded terror to the promise of real freedom up north.

Fueled by some Delta-deep acoustic blues guitar, nasty baritone saxophone and clacking percussion, Los Lobos' choo-choo relocates the original blues peoples' iconic train station from the rural Black Belt to suburban Southern California.

Even when the former barrio boys seem to be living it up, the good times are tinged with unarticulated anxiety. "Life Is Good" is a not-too-distant relative of Randy Newman's slightly warped character studies; the tune also borrows Newman's caustic, martini-dry delivery. Riding atop Pérez's fatback-thumping, R&B-style guitar and some evil-magician keyboards, Hidalgo's treated vocal is masterfully understated. The "ooh-la-la" chorus--one of the album's very few--only magnifies the nagging sense that things are not quite as sanguine as they appear.

As a matter of longstanding policy, Los Lobos' Colossal Head also offers the band's unique take on traditional Latino music. In this instance, the band breaks off a son, a bass-and-percussion-driven idiom that migrated from Cuba to Mexico circa the 1950s. "Maricela" (sung in Spanish) assays a tale of romantic longing. Hidalgo's wheezing accordion meshes smartly with Berlin's reeds to evoke a verdant paradise lost but temporarily recovered, a fantasy island of indolently undulating rhythms and love-stricken serenading.

Another sultry South American-derived tune, "Mas Y Mas" is a straight-up mulatto tune; the composition's ground level is inhabited by a battery of torrid polyrhythms while, another level up, stun-gun guitars pop off round after round of dead-on licks. Incredibly, Hidalgo's vocal isn't buried amidst this siege of lethal beats. The singer spits out the song's bilingual script like a man on the brink of running amok.

Colossal Head is not picture perfect; but even the rare miscues ("Can't Stop the Rain"; "This Bird's Gonna Fly" are both hamstrung by time-worn themes concerning stone-hearted women) have their moments, musically. Remarkably, even as the band grow ever more exploratory, a straight-from-the-heart state of grace lifts Los Lobos above rock's aimless rabble. It's just a hunch, but if Los Lobos had been white, they'd probably be larger than life and accorded equal footing with other great heads ensconced in rock's largely vanilla-flavored Valhalla.

Los Lobos performs Tuesday (May 14) at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Doors open at 7:30pm. Tickets are $17 adv./$18.50 door. (408/423-1336). Conrad Lozano talks to Beat Street.

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From the May 9-15, 1996 issue of Metro

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