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Los Lobos
 Colossal Head, Warner Bros. CD 9 46172-2, 1996 (43:05)

Oy, my head!

If you haven't been keeping up with Los Lobos for the past few years, I think it best that I first tell you what this latest offering isn't before I tell you what it is. Out of the eleven tracks, there ain't a "La Bamba" in the bunch! That song, combined with an uninspired performance that I witnessed in 1987 when "The Wolves" opened for U2 on their blockbuster Joshua Tree tour sent me spinning wildly on an orbit far, far away from Los Lobos. Now I'll admit that I was young and musically ignorant at the time (case in point: I was really excited about that Joshua Tree tour), but I knew a crappy, overplayed cover-tune when I heard one.

Well, here we are in 1996, and Los Lobos have since released four or five albums. While they have taken a few experimental bobs and weaves, they have generally remained true to their roots by consistently producing catchy songs that blend rudimentary rock with their Chicano musical influences. I doubt  Colossal Head will disappoint the long-time fans who dig their Latin goodness, but it does mark a significant change in their sound and it should help these bad boys from East LA attract some new fans.

The album's first track, "Revolution" is a soulful funky groove that features a great back beat and some nice twangy guitar. Unlike an angry/ironic John Lennon song of impending world revolution, this is a remorseful song of a ragged revolutionary soldier who fought the good fight but not concedes defeat: "We tried my brother/ To hold on to our faith/ Or was it late for revolution/ Too tired, too tired sister/ To hold our fists so high/ Now that it's gone." The somber mood is immediately shattered by the album's next track "Mas y Mas," a fiery song that mixes Santana-like guitar riffs and Los Lobos' trademark hybrid "Spanglish" lyrics.

It's not until "Everybody Loves a Train" that one starts to suspect that co-producer Mitchell Froom is taking this band into new waters. The megaphone vocal effect, swampy percussion, and bass sax all combine to make a wonderfully unique song that, despite its catchiness, will never receive any air play except perhaps on the occasional college radio stations. Froom, who has been working with Los Lobos for several years, made his first significant mark in 1992 when he got the nod to co-produce their breakthrough album  Kiko. However, like the name implies,  Colossal Head is a bigger and bolder experiment that Froom pulls off without a hitch. In addition to the ubiquitous muddy Creedence-like guitar and assortment of vocal effects, one of the most notable changes is how Froom uses Steve Berlin's talents throughout the album. Like a fine wine that complements a great meal, Berlin's throaty saxophone is always right there guiding and complimenting the song in a way that you feel rather than hear...or maybe I'm just a sucker for bass sax.

One of the best songs on the album is a bluesy little number called "Manny's Bones" that laments the loss of a scoundrel in a very tongue-in-cheek way: "Manny's dead and didn't leave me none/ He went off to heaven and left his bed undone/ Gone away he didn't leave a cent/ The dogs are all wondering where their daddy went." One of my favorite moments on the entire album occurs during this song at the beginning of the third verse when the vocalist suddenly sounds as if he's stepped about 10 feet back from the microphone. I doubt this was an unintentional production oversight, because it's a wonderful effect and it makes the song all the better.  Colossal Head marks a major step forward in the three big departments by which albums are generally judged: song writing, production, and musicianship. In the NBA, this is known as a triple-double, and I wish there were more of them in the music biz. -  Mark Oppfelt

 Jason Staczek says... If this record sounds interesting, I direct you toward the 1994 self-titled release from The Latin Playboys, a collaborative effort from David Hidalgo, Louie Perez, Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake. The four share production credits and musical duties on a darker, slower, border radio foreshadow of  Colossal Head. It's a handmade, lo-fi bag of emotional and sonic experiments captured without any apologies. Get it. (Slash/Warner Bros. CD 9 45543-2, 1994)

production notes & song titles

Cesar Rosas, vocals, guitar, mandolin; Louis Perez, drums, guitar, quinto; David Hidalgo, vocals, guitar, accordion; Conrad Lozano, vocals, bass, guitarron; Steve Berlin, saxophones & winds.

Produced by Mitchell Froom, Tchad Blake and Los Lobos; engineered by Tchad Blake and John Paterson.

Revolution | Mas y Mas | Maricela | Everybody Loves a Train | Can't Stop the Rain | Life Is Good | Little Japan | Manny's Bones | Colossal Head | This Bird's Gonna Fly | Buddy Ebsen Loves the Night Time

Copyright © 1996 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.