September 23, 2023

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Los Lobos: Native Sons Album Review

Consider Native Sons an autobiography told through other people’s words. Los Lobos designed this covers album as a tribute to their hometown of Los Angeles, selecting songs they believed would represent the soul of the city, taking pains to incorporate the different sounds and cultures that lie within its urban sprawl. Sticking largely to music written and recorded prior to the band’s formation in 1973, Los Lobos dodge nostalgia by side-stepping recognizable tunes in favor of ones that showcase their versatility and taste, elements that have distinguished the band throughout their long career.

Cover songs always loomed large in the history of Los Lobos. In their earliest days, they made their bones playing weddings and parties, building muscles they’d flex when they made the leap to Hollywood punk clubs in the early 1980s. Aligning with the rootsier side of punk, they signed with the indie label Slash—home to X and the Blasters; in the liner notes to Native Sons, saxophonist/keyboardist Steve Berlin says the latter band was “not just inspirational, but aspirational”—and earned a nationwide cult upon the 1984 release of their major-label debut, How Will The Wolf Survive. When director Luis Valdez brought the story of pioneering Chicano rocker Richie Valens to the big screen with La Bamba, Los Lobos were the natural choice to perform Valens’ songs on the soundtrack.

“La Bamba,” a Mexican folk song turned rock’n’roll raver by Valens, gave Los Lobos a No. 1 hit when their version accompanied the film’s theatrical release in the summer of 1987. A fluke in the grand scheme of things, the song gave Los Lobos mainstream recognition, which they built into a viable career, keeping them on the road for decades. As they closed out the 2010s, this touring schedule made it difficult to find time to write a new record, so they decided to cut a covers album. When the pandemic forced them off the road, they took the time to create a cohesive collection, canvassing friends and colleagues for song suggestions and adding a sweet new original to the mix.

Native Sons deliberately casts a wide net, bringing in songs from different genres and different corners of Los Angeles. It opens with “Love Special Delivery,” a 1966 track by the Chicano rock & roll band Thee Midniters. Many other Mexican artists are saluted, from the hopping “Los Chucos Suaves” by Lalo Guerrero—the guitarist widely acknowledged as “the Father of Chicano Music”—and Willie Bobo’s romantic “Dichoso,” to “Where Lovers Go,” a dreamy end-of-the-night instrumental by the Jaguars that closes the album on a wistful note. “Farmer John” is also associated with Mexican rockers the Premiers—they brought it to No. 19 in 1964; it would later be included on the classic 1972 compilation Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968—but Los Lobos revive the frenzied tempo of the original version by Don & Dewey. It is one of several R&B tunes that give Native Sons a walloping dance beat.

Between the margins of Chicano rock and R&B, music that conveys the pulse of Los Angeles to many of its residents, lay rock groups who embodied a a different kind of Southern California sound. Apart from splicing “Bluebird” and “For What It’s Worth” into a Buffalo Springfield medley, Los Lobos stay faithful to these original arrangements, which doesn’t mean they’re replicating records. They’re relying on their collective strengths as a rock’n’roll band, sounding less ornate than the Beach Boys on “Sail, On Sailor” and leaner than Jackson Browne on “Jamaica Say You Will,” even if they retain his honeyed harmonies. The same keep-it-simple aesthetic also means they take “Flat Top Joint” at a faster clip than the Blasters and explore jazzy detours during a long vamp on War’s “The World Is a Ghetto.” Even when they’re playing songs from other artists, Los Lobos sound like no other band.

Buy: Rough Trade

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