"La Bamba"? Not even close. Only the hopelessly out-of-touch still
associate Los Lobos with their Ritchie Valens cover and mild roots rock.
As the members of Los Lobos push 50, they only get stranger, more
experimental and -- not coincidentally -- better with each release.
They first cracked open their sound on Kiko (1992), tossing
together unusual rhythms and instruments, forging a new identity that
was wider and wilder than that dictated by traditional conceptions of
roots music. But Latin Playboys (1994), a side project made up of
lead Lobos David Hidalgo and Louie Perez and producers Mitchell Froom
and Tchad Blake, was the real turning point. The Latin Playboys pushed
the experiments even further, tossing in the kitchen sink quite
literally. Recorded late at night on a 4-track in Hidalgo's kitchen, the
Latin Playboys album was a concoction of otherworldly fragments,
found sounds, haunting melodies and hand-made instrumentals that washed
ashore like an artifact from another dimension. Its bold collage
soundscapes made Kiko sound merely eclectic by comparison.
Five years later, the Latin Playboys are back with Dose, the
unexpected follow-up to an album that seemed destined to be a one-off.
Unlike its somewhat subdued predecessor, Dose sounds like a
raucous block party, an east L.A. barrio throwdown where the sound
system is an old boom box with a blown speaker that sounds great anyway.
The party is overflowing with vendors selling flavored ice shaved off a
block, kids begging their parents for rides to the drive-in, lovers
feeling the music's low note rumble, neighborhood legends who claim they
can wrap the world up in chicken wire before the night is through.
It's a fool's game to try and sum up the Latin Playboys' sound in a
quick phrase. They always come up with the unexpected, and even song
titles like "Fiesta Erotica" are misleading. That instrumental begins
the album with a wash of sculpted distortion, a drum machine programmed
to sound like a garbage can (or vice-versa), and soaring, spiraling
guitars. The next track, "Cuba's Blues," isn't blues but a gently
throbbing cinematic narrative shot through with raw slabs of fuzz
guitar. The title song is a sobering mix of junkyard percussion and
backward tape loops with a distant voice advising, "When you die/ and
they take you and they put you in the ground/ No matter who and what you
are/ you end up looking brown."
Things don't stay grim for long. "Paletero" is a carnival of looped
sounds anchored by a savage jackhammer beat. Guitars and roller-rink
organs chase each other while Hildalgo shouts a mix of Spanish and
English lyrics. "Nubian Princess" takes the sort of beat and wa-wa
keyboard riff that Beck would polish into a pop hit and lets them melt
down in the sun. "Lemon 'N' Ice" is a tender lover's plea with minimal
accompaniment and backing vocals by Wendy and Lisa.
Each song contributes something different, and despite its eclecticism
and off-the-cuff feel, Dose hangs together brilliantly. It's more
song-oriented than the first album, but the main focus remains on the
groove. The furious beats on songs like "Paletero" and "Locoman" even
recall techno in their intensity and complexity, though they have an
The album's greatest accomplishment is that for all its avant-garde
gestures, the music feels as populist as it does cutting-edge. The party
the Latin Playboys throw occasionally evokes Cuban dancehalls, East
Village lounges and Southern juke joints, but it never stops seducing
you with new possibilities, inviting you into spaces you never dreamed