The Year of the Wolf-Los Lobos and Family

This Time , Los Lobos (Hollywood Records).

Dose , Latin Playboys (Atlantic).

Soul Disguise , Cesar Rosas (Rykodisc).

Houndog , Houndog (Columbia Legacy).

This last year of the 20th century turns out to be the year of the wolf: Los Lobos. In the spring, that band from East Los Angeles released three offshoot records. This summer sees the debut of the ninth full-length Los Lobos album, This Time . It’s a lively little meat ‘n’ potatoes (or, more accurately, chips ‘n’ salsa) collection of bluesy rockers. In no way does it resemble the psychedelic hoopla that frontman David Hildalgo and drummer Luis Perez–along with producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake–indulge in when they play as the Latin Playboys.

This Time ‘s most way-out cut is the title number–a slow swamp rocker with percussion that sounds like a dinosaur in the distance gulping water. The next one, “Oh Yeah,” has Mr. Froom’s trademark layered drum effect–as if that dinosaur was munching a stack of tostada shells. Thereafter, the record is straight rocanrol . The third track is a heavy-metal-ish thumper about a guy named Viking “with a scar where his heart should have been.” Another is a working-class rant against “people in high places” (“High Places”). Later comes a heavy sax shuffle courtesy of Los Lobos saxman Steve Berlin (“Run Away With You”). “Some Say, Some Do” is a La Onda Chicana-style (Mexican political rock from the 60’s) statement about hungry kids. This Time celebrates real life, not the Buñuelian Andalusian Dog space of their surreal 1992 masterpiece Kiko . Of course, This Time contains Spanish numbers–three of them. They sound fine, but aren’t particularly integrated into the lineup. In the August Esquire , Mr. Perez stoically remarks that today’s Chicano kids only dig “rap and hip-hop.” If that’s true, the Spanish songs are a reminder that Mexican-American culture is richer than that.

As for gringo ears, American cities with substantial Mexican-American populations such as Austin, Tex., and Los Angeles will hear nuances in the Spanish songs “Cumbia Raza,” “Corazón” and “La Playa” that citizens of, say, Fargo, N.D., or Manhattan will miss. On the other hand, Texans will hear those songs with a differently ear than Californians. As Los Lobos guitarist-singer-songwriter Cesar Rosas remarks in last summer’s issue of Sing Out! , “It’s a whole different trip the way they feel about Mexican music down [in Texas]. California is a little more Americanized.”

Although New Yorkers may not get the rich variety in Mexican music, even residents of Chelsea or Chinatown will hear that the Latin Playboys are steadily burning the weird juju out of Los Lobos’ system. The Latin Playboys’ self-titled debut in 1994 was a hoot, but this year’s Dose is as overboard as the sounds of the Residents–the only group more whacked-out than them. In fact, outside of two rootsy rockers and a spoken-word piece about a kid driving with his folk to the movies to see “Ricardo Montalban and some hueras ,” Dose ‘s other instrumental and vocal numbers actually mimic the Residents’ cartoon sound. Come to think of it, the Residents have never been photographed without their giant eyeball masks. Does anyone really know what Messrs. Hildalgo, Perez, Froom and Blake do in their spare time?

We all know that Cesar Rosas makes straight no-nonsense barroom rock in his spare time. Mr. Rosas, if you need reminding, is the grumpy-looking Los Lobos player with the goatee. After listening to his first solo album, Soul Disguise , it’s easy to imagine that he showed up at the This Time sessions and barked, “O.K., amigos. Enough with this freak music–let’s just do rocanrol !” His Soul Disguise is pure cafes cantantes thump. On first listen, there’s not much to say about songs like “Angelito,” “Struck,” “Treat Me Right” and “E. Los Ballad #13.” They seem as unmemorable as Dose is ridiculous. Yet Mr. Rosas’ straight-ahead songs sound better and better the closer to midnight or last call the clock gets.

Houndog , the record David Hidalgo recorded with Canned Heat’s brief alumnus, Mike Halby, is even more toned down than Mr. Rosas’ CD. Mr. Hidalgo and Mr. Halby overdubbed vocals, guitars, drums and violin–with Mr. Hidalgo as both the fiddler and the album’s producer–to create a soundscape that is sparser than sparse. We never have to talk about Skip Spence again because Houndog may be the most satisfying minimalist album ever recorded. The backbone of most songs is just drums and bass, both instruments punched up without echo or reverb. It’s like you’re listening to Mr. Hidalgo and Mr. Halby play in some Quonset hut out in the Mojave. Mr. Halby sings most of the simple stark songs about there being “No chance/ No Chance/ No chance–for romance” or “All fired up–All shook down” or “Somebody’s got to stop/ Somebody’s got to stop the bleedin'” (respectively, “No Chance,” “All Fired up, All Shook Down,” “Somebody (Stop the Bleedin'”). Mr. Hildalgo’s violin, not guitar, is the lead instrument. His violin is deliciously dour, never screechy. You know how a snake slithers? That’s Hidalgo. As musically unadorned as Houndog is, it’s the most modern-sounding record Los Lobos members have ever released.

Producer Mitchell Froom may be a master with his post- jipismo neo-psychedelic tricks, but this former porn-film composer doesn’t have a clue about producing unadorned music. Mr. Hidalgo, on the other hand, can be as trippy as Mr. Froom, yet knows how to apply the principle, less is more. One is tempted to paraphrase President Porfirio Díaz’s (1830-1915) lament about Mexico and the United States, Poor Los Lobos! So far from God, so close to Mitchell Froom.

But no, no, no. That’s unfair. What if Los Lobos returns to that Kiko -ish rococo sound? Then Mr. Froom will be their man. Perhaps I was also unfair on Manhattan’s gringo culture earlier. In mid-July, the papers reported that two Mexican gangs had a shootout in the subway. Mexican gangs in New York? Obviously, there is more Mexican culture in this city than meets the eye. What a gas if during that gunplay, the gang members had a boom box playing the title song on Los Lobos’ 1988 folk album La Pistola y el Corazón , ” Y aqui siempre paso la vida con/ La pistola y el corazón .” The English translation: “And here as always I spend my life/ With the pistol and the heart.”

The pistol and the heart. I can’t think of a more symbolic or more Mexican pairing of words to describe the beauty found in Los Lobos’ music.