Los Lobos: Tin Can Trust

RIYL: The Grateful Dead, Los Lonley Boys, bands that the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame hasn’t gotten the head out of their asses and enshrined yet

Los Lobos are back with another fine album, Tin Can Trust. Do these guys ever put out a weak effort? This new collection of songs by the venerable east L.A. band, an American institution, is a much looser affair than their last album of original recordings, 2006’s The Town and the City. It has the feel of some of their earliest LP’s, such as How Will the Wolf Survive, By the Light of the Moon, and their triumphant The Neighborhood. Each song on Tin Can Trust has feels immediate, recorded with minimum overdubs, delivering the optimum effect of hearing Los Lobos live in a concert hall or some out-of-the-way drinking hole.

“Burn It Down:” is the lead track and first single. It’s a solid, radio-friendly song that features the great Susan Tedeschi singing background vocals with lead singer David Hidalgo. The second song, “On Main Street,” while simple in execution and lyrical content, has the right mood of a hot summer afternoon in the neighborhood. Try listening to it and not imagining yourself cruising around with one of your buds, the windows down, the radio cranked.

Cesar Rosas keeps the band grounded to their Chicano heritage with two excellent Spanish sung songs: the upbeat, rocker “Yo Canto,” and the more traditional (more accordion-driven) “Mujer Ingrata.” The title track is another example of Los Lobos’ gift for constructing a song out of repetitive simple chords and basic beats, creating something wondrous. Meanwhile, “Do the Murray” is a fantastic “get your ass of out that seat and dance” rockabilly/blues/Deadhead instrumental from the band. Hell Yeah!

Speaking of the Grateful Dead, that band’s lyricist Robert Hunter supplies words for a couple of songs, including the powerfully done “All My Bridges Burning,” which finds Rosas digging deep for his vocals. The band also covers the Dead’s “West L.A. Fadeaway” to great effect.

At this point in their career, in which Los Lobos primarily tour to support themselves, there seems no reason for the band to continue putting out new albums. They have enough material from their storied career that they shouldn’t need additional music. Yet, as artists, they are driven to continue creating and finding ways to express themselves through their music. Tin Can Trust is indication that Los Lobos is still one of the best bands around. Let’s hope they continue putting out more records for years to come. ( Shout! Factory 2010)

Los Lobos MySpace page
Purchase Tin Can Trust through Amazon


Stone River Boys: Love on the Dial

RIYL: The Vaughan Brothers, Southern Culture on the Skids, Hacienda Brothers, Los Lobos

Guitarist Dave Gonzalez (Hacienda Brothers) and singer Mike Barfield, the core of Austin’s Stone River Boys, came together in 2008 when Gonzalez recruited musicians for a benefit tour to help raise money for his ailing Hacienda Brothers bandmate, singer Chris Gaffney. Gaffney was battling cancer and Gonzalez recruited musicians from Austin’s fertile talent pool, including Barfield, nicknamed “the Tyrant of Texas Funk.” Sadly, Gaffney succumbed to the disease, but the tour continued with proceeds being sent to Gaffney’s widow. Along the way, Gonzalez and Barfield began writing songs and eventually started laying down tracks while on the road. The good karma from the Stone River Boys’ noble gesture is evident as their debut album, Love on the Dial, is one of the most lively collections of music you’ll hear this season. Perfect for barbecues and games of cornhole; or just hanging out with your baby trying to stay cool (or heat things up) on a hot summer night.

A cover of Stephen Bruton’s “Bluebonnet Blues” propels the album forward like a sturdy old Ford and sets the tone of an album that crosses traditional country music with Texas blues and ’60s soul music for a hybrid  the Boys like to call country funk. The sound is best exemplified in “Can I Change It,” which blends a Steve Cropper guitar lick with a steel guitar playing like a horn section, and “The Struggle,” which brings to mind the Fabulous Thunderbirds in their ’80s heyday.

Elsewhere, the band adopts more traditional country sounds, such as “Lovers Prison” and the lovely “40 Acres,” a heartfelt lament of times gone by. The highlight of the record may be their cover of the Gerry Goffin/Carole King classic, “Take a Giant Step.” Fusing country, soul and a surf guitar twang, they create a magical, dreamlike song, something you’d expect to hear from Chris Isaak or Los Lobos.

The combination of Barfield’s voice and Gonzalez’s guitar playing have created  unique group. Barfield sings with bravado and a sincerity that seems lacking in so much of the slick country music that gets radio airplay. Meanwhile, Gonzalez’s guitar slinging is sharp and economical. When he needs to, he can put on a display of fast fingerwork, but he is such a fine musician that he knows when the song calls for fireworks and when it requires something more subdued. (Cow Island 2010)

Stone River Boys MySpace Page
Click to buy Love on the Dial at Amazon


Herbie Hancock: The Imagine Project

RIYL: Santana’s Shaman and Supernatural, Anoushka  Shankar’s Breathing Underwater,  WOMAD label artists

On the surface, one might conclude that Herbie Hancock’s current release, The Imaging Project, is a Johnny-come-lately effort that builds on the model Carlos Santana rode to great success on Supernatural and Shaman.  That is to say, call in a diverse group of popular artists and have them record songs that infuse their styles with the dominant musical character of bandleader. Hancock and company certainly attempt that, but Mr. Hancock has grander designs other than just creating a hit record.  The Imagine Project is, according to Hancock, part of a global outreach strategy featuring musicians from various corners of the world to foster a kind of globalization that emphasizes mutual respect rather than a top-down cultural dominance emanating from U.S. to the rest of the world.  Does Hancock succeed in his ambitions?  At times he does, but at other times the record sounds like bland smooth jazz that never rises above level of innocuous background music for worker bees in office buildings.

The most interesting tracks (and ones that reach Hancock’s ambitions on this album) are tucked in the middle and end of the CD.  “The Song Goes On” featuring Chaka Khan and Wayne Shorter – and some blistering sitar playing by Anoushka Shankar – demonstrates what I think Hancock had in mind for this album (the same goes for “Tempo De Amor,” “La Tierra,” and “Tamatant Tilay/Exodus”). Alas, there are some real duds that take away from the potential grandness of the project.  “Tomorrow Never Knows” featuring Dave Matthews is as pointless of a cover as it is boring. “Imagine” gets bogged down in pomposity and relegates Jeff Beck to playing a solo that could have been done by any good musician with about a year’s worth of guitar lessons.  And only Pink saves “Don’t Give Up” from becoming a milquetoast cover of the Peter Gabriel/Kate Bush original.

The Imagine Project is not a horrible record by any stretch, but it continually falls short on both fusing various musical styles and finding new wine from the old wineskins of classic songs. However, when it shines (as it does at times), the music does transcend geographic boarders to create a fusion that lives up to Hancock’s stated goal for this record.  (Hancock Records 2010)

Herbie Hancock’s website
Click to buy The Imagine Project from Amazon


Los Cenzontles with David Hidalgo & Taj Mahal: American Horizon

RIYL: Los Lobos, Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder

Odds are you’ve never heard of Los Cenzontles (the name translates to “the Mockingbirds”), but they’ve been a major force in traditional Mexican music since forming in 1989. Twenty years and 17 albums later, they’ve teamed up with Taj Mahal and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo (who also worked with the group on last year’s Songs of Wood and Steel) for American Horizon, a sprawling, 15-track concept album that, in the band’s words, “tells a timely story of immigration, work, and the American Dream.” Not the sort of thing you’re going to hear coming out of Sean Hannity’s car stereo, in other words, but if you’re looking for a beautifully moving collection of roots music that literally transcends language, get ready to spend a few weeks curled up inside the restless grooves of this album. You won’t be able to understand the literal meaning of much of it if you don’t speak Spanish, but don’t worry – you only need a soul and a pair of ears to be able to feel American Horizon’s bright strains of joy and sadness. Think of it as a sort of spiritual cousin to the Buena Vista Social Club, and you’ll be on the right track. Mahal and Hidalgo receive second billing, but don’t buy Horizon looking for flashy cameos; instead, their work here reflects a pair of careers spent knocking down musical barriers. It’s one of the most heartfelt – and purely interesting – records we’ve heard all year. (Los Cenzontles 2009)

Los Cenzontles MySpace page
Click to buy American Horizon on Amazon


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