Anyone introduced to Los Lobos via their 1983 EP ... and a Time to Dance could tell that they had thoroughly mastered every imaginable form of American roots music, from blues to country to norteño to classic soul. The real surprise of this band’s long career has been their eagerness to experiment, to take their songs apart and put them back together in wonderfully disjointed ways. In spirit, they have much more in common with Tom Waits or recent Wilco than with the tame traditionalism of Los Lonely Boys.
Every now and then, Los Lobos will make a summing-up roots record (La Pistola y El Corazon; The Ride), but their most gratifying work has seamlessly melded barrio rhythms with post-modern loops and electronic blips. The Town and the City finds the group in the kind of adventurous form they demonstrated on 1992’s milestone Kiko and 1996’s equally fine Colossal Head. In fact, the avant-garde cumbia of “The City” feels like a sequel to the magic realism of “Kiko and the Lavender Moon.”
Elsewhere, the band explores the issue of immigration with a thankfully sensitive touch. The trance-like repetition of “Hold On” perfectly underlines the song’s mood of grim determination: “I’m killing myself just to keep alive/killing myself to survive.” David Hidalgo’s disorienting, backwards guitar fills similarly match the dual senses of dread and hope of the desert pilgrimage depicted in “The Road to Gila Bend.”
The album’s most moving track is also one of its simplest. The remorseful R&B ballad “Little Things” tells the familiar story of a man who attained wealth but threw away the love that he had all along. Hidalgo sings it with heartbreaking understatement, a detachment that somehow conveys deep yearning.
Los Lobos’ sustained excellence has been so reliable over the years that it’s been easy to take them for granted. But The Town and the City deserves attention, and it demonstrates how a veteran, established band can challenge itself without abandoning its roots.