Los Lobos began as the dance band of your fondest dreams. Their best songs blended ’50’s R&B rave-ups and norte�a stomps: two hot guitarists fought for space with an accordion over a two-stepping polka, Cesar Rosas growling the fast ones, David Hildago sweetly crooning the occasional ballad. On a good night, they’d throw the wildest party you’d ever imagined.
Their first few records captured their onstage momentum, but as the eighties wound on the band began to sound tired. You could hear them straining against the limitations of their style, with no clear sense of where they were headed.
This ended in 1992 with the release of Kiko. The rabid drive of their early work was gone, replaced with a delightful mid-tempo groove. With the help of producer Mitchell Froom, they began to experiment with texture and tone, building dense sonic assemblages that never overwhelmed the strong songwriting. The sound was lush, impossibly full, with no sacrifice of clarity or power.
Their next two albums were even better: the 1994 side project Latin Playboys took their sonic experimentation as far as it could go, into Beefheart and Waits territory. Colossal Head, from 1996, is their masterpiece: the songs are uniformly excellent, and in such a variety of styles that it sounds like a compilation album. They’re united by a goofy sense of fun and a sinuous, funky groove that swings between Latin and rock rhythms.
This Time is a slight disappointment: coming off a run of such satisfying records, Los Lobos had to misstep eventually. The band sounds complacent, the groove wearing into a rut. The album needs a blistering change of pace like "Mas Y Mas," from Colossal Head. This Time could use a good jolt to shake it awake.
The lyrics come up short, trite when they aim for significance. It doesn’t help that the melodies — save for the gorgeous "Corazon" — are weaker this time out: better tunes could have made it easier to ignore the platitudes of "High Places" and "Some Say, Some Do."
The album’s chief pleasures lie in its rich textures and sharp arrangements. Each song has a distinct aural signature, a sound that you’ll remember far longer than the tune. "Viking" is typical: the vocal is clipped and tinny, buried in reverb amidst dense layers of throaty guitar distortion. The harshness of the effects works against the dreamy soundscape, keeping the atmospherics in check.
This Time is great ear candy; maybe next time the songs will live up to the production.