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Album Reviews : Lobos: Valens Revisited

July 12, 1987|DON SNOWDEN

"LA BAMBA" sound track. Los Lobos and others. Slash/Warner Bros.

"RITCHIE VALENS," Ritchie Valens. Rhino.

Most Hollywood or Broadway attempts at remaking the music of classic rockers pale in comparison to the artists' original versions. But Los Lobos beats the odds with its potent interpretations of the music of Ritchie Valens on the "La Bamba" sound-track LP.

Valens, who was only 17 when he was killed in a 1959 plane crash with Buddy Holly, was Los Angeles' first Latino rock star.

Los Lobos, the most influential Latino rock act to emerge from L.A. since then, hasn't ignored Valens during its career--the band recorded "Come On, Let's Go" on its debut EP and often features "That's My Little Suzie" on stage. But its version of "La Bamba" has waited for the Valens film biography of the same name, which opens here July 24.

The remake of "La Bamba" starts off as a faithful throwback to '50s rock, but Los Lobos uses its command of Mexican folk styles to bring the song full circle. David Hidalgo's accordion subtly slides into the arrangement before the group shifts gears completely with an acoustic snippet of the traditional song, which had originally been popularized by traveling jarocho bands around Vera Cruz, Mexico in the 1940s before Valens adapted it to rock 'n' roll.

Los Lobos treats the other Valens material respectfully, but gives the music a pumped-up '80s feel. The chief revelation on this album is the added personality in David Hidalgo's singing. Hidalgo renders "La Bamba" and "Come On, Let's Go" in the pure, high voice familiar to Los Lobos fans. But he steps out of character to convincingly portray a screaming rocker on "Ooh, My Head," and a doo-wop balladeer on "Donna" and "We Belong Together." Hidalgo's bluesy inflection on "Framed" owes as much to local blues belter Top Jimmy as it does to Valens.

Meanwhile, Rhino Records has been making the original Valens recordings available again. Of the four Rhino releases, "Ritchie Valens" (his first album) is stronger than the Rhino-compiled "Best Of" collection for fans who prefer rockers to tender ballads. (The other two are Valens' second album "Ritchie" and "In Concert at Pacoima Jr. High").

The freshness and heartfelt emotion that made Valens' music memorable still hit home. "La Bamba" remains a perfect moment in rock. So what's the better buy--Valens' originals or Los Lobos' remakes?

The nod goes to Valens because any self-respecting rock fan has to have the Valens version of "La Bamba." Still, the choice is difficult because Los Lobos didn't just re-do these songs--the group revealed a new dimension in their own music through Hidalgo's singing.

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