critic’s pick 294: los lobos, ‘gates of gold’

los lobos gates of gold“There I go, like a leaf that’s blown away, so like a child that’s lost his way,” sings David Hidalgo against a shuffle both murky and merry on the new Los Lobos album Gates of Gold. “I keep on looking. It’s all I can do.”

That’s an especially revealing perspective – an elder with a childlike outlook feeling lost in the ages. You could say that sums up Los Lobos’ place in the pop world of today. Critically cherished but largely forgotten by the mainstream, the East Los Angeles band soldiers on after 40 years without any defections from its initial lineup. While its mix of Americana, psychedelia, Tex Mex and Mexicali soul isn’t exactly the formula of a marquee act, Los Lobos long ago forged such a blend into a roots-savvy sound of its own.

The thing is, Los Lobos’ recordings – the popular, the obscure and the recent – are all little gems. Take the band’s last studio set, 2010’s Tin Can Trust. It seemed to cause little more than a commercial ripple, yet it was an astounding record full of soulful, but world weary songs that sounded positively sagely.

Gates of Gold falls just shy of Tin Can Trust’s high water mark, but it is still a feast of a record. The music is both restless and rocking as it fleshes out the exhausted world view Hidalgo and drummer-turned-guitarist Louie Perez write about on the album opening Made to Break Your Heart. The song chugs along with a solemn, Santana-like groove before cracking open a compelling contradiction (“Don’t you know love is made to break your heart”).

When We Were Free follows to both deepen the wound (“We forgot that moment, that so precious moment, and let this world steal it from you and me”) and then serve as a balm with a soothing pop-soul sway that blows by in light, percussive waves.

Of course, the beauty of Los Lobos remains its balance. If Hidalgo and Perez are the band’s reticent fortune tellers, co-vocalist and guitarist Cesar Rosas is its pragmatist. His Mis-Treater Boogie Blues storms in like a blast of mid ‘70s ZZ Top. “Boogie” and “Blues” are the optimal terms, because the song isn’t much sunnier thematically than the rest of the album, but the electricity within the tune is celebratory and almost primal. Hildalgo and Perez siphon a bit of that immediacy for Too Small Heart for turmoil (“Too small heart called last night; didn’t say hello, said only goodbye”) as succinct as the tune’s roaring electric groove.

Want more? Try the antique country feel of Gates of Gold’s title tune, the lazy back porch blues of I Believed You So and the luscious cantina feel of the Spanish-sung La Tumba Sera El Final. It all makes for another golden sleeper of an album from the tireless Los Lobos.

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