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Los Lobos Returns to Old Haunts on New LP

October 11, 1990|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic; his pieces regularly appear in the Calendar section

One reason Los Lobos took so long to record its new album, "The Neighborhood," was, ironically, the huge success of the East Los Angeles-spawned quintet's "La Bamba" single.

The group's last album of original songs--1987's "By the Light of the Moon"--was a dark, moving series of tales about the troubled pursuit of the American Dream, seen inescapably through a barrio perspective.

Arguably the most culturally arresting and musically embracing work by a Los Angeles-based group in nearly a decade, the graceful, warm-spirited collection sold a respectable 400,000 copies and was named to the year-end Top 10 lists of numerous critics.

Yet "Moon" was almost totally eclipsed in the public mind by the runaway success a few months later of Los Lobos' next recording venture: several songs for the soundtrack of "La Bamba," the film biography of '50s Mexican-American rock star Ritchie Valens. The soundtrack album sold more than 2 million copies, and Los Lobos' title track spent weeks at No. 1 on the pop charts.

The natural thing from a commercial standpoint would have been for Los Lobos to return with another collection of oldies. But that would have meant setting aside the compelling vision that made "Moon" and the earlier "How Will the Wolf Survive?" recordings so memorable.

Instead, the quintet released "La Pistola y El Corazon," an album of Mexican folk music. The album sold about 100,000 copies--impressive for such a daring venture, but negligible when compared to "La Bamba."

Louie Perez and David Hidalgo, the group's primary songwriters, now admit that Los Lobos was, in some ways, buying time with the "La Pistola" album.

"The only sad part of the 'Moon' album (experience) was that it was overshadowed by 'La Bamba,' " said Hidalgo, who also sings lead on most Los Lobos tunes. He was sitting with Perez on the porch of Perez's old family house in the Belvedere district of East Los Angeles.

"It was nice to see the crowds start getting bigger at the shows," Hidalgo said, "but we would wonder sometimes why these people were in the theater. Was it to see us or just because of the movie?"

The "Pistola" project, he said, was designed to salute the Mexican folk music that the group played for years at weddings and dances in East L.A.

"The Neighborhood," which will figure prominently in the group's Oct. 19 concert at the Greek Theatre, features a few bluesy, high-spirited workouts that should appeal to "La Bamba" fans, but mainly the album radiates with the disarming artistic vision exhibited in "By the Light of the Moon."

Los Lobos--which also consists of singer-guitarist Cesar Rosas, bassist Conrad Lozano and saxophonist Steve Berlin--began work on the new album in late 1988, expecting to finish in time for release last January. But writing it took longer than expected.

"It's not that we ever thought of trying to make 'La Bamba II,' " Perez said. "That would have been ridiculous. But there's no doubt that during the course of writing the songs for this album there was this thing looming over you . . . the thought that you have to live up to the commercial success that we had with 'La Bamba.'

"I think we told ourselves a few times that maybe we shouldn't be as dark and as introspective as 'Moon' . . . that maybe we should do something more accessible," he said. "But every time we started going too far in that direction, we found ourselves stopping and clearing the table . . . starting all over, getting back to something that really meant something to us."

The four original members of Los Lobos (Berlin joined the group in the '80s) were friends at Garfield High School, but were in separate rock bands until getting together in the early '70s. Disillusioned by only being able to play Top 40 hits at clubs and dances with their bands, the four friends began exploring acoustic Mexican music in their off hours.

They enjoyed it so much--and found such a positive reaction to it--that they switched styles, playing hundreds of weddings and dances between 1974 and 1980. Eventually, however, Los Lobos got caught up in the energy and imagination that was being generated by bands on the Hollywood club circuit, and the group shifted to rock.

Gradually, an undercurrent of social commentary began to surface and Los Lobos stepped up to an entirely new creative level.

Images of the band members' old neighborhood surface in some of the songs on the new album.

"We didn't set out to call the album 'The Neighborhood,' " Perez said. "It (the title song) was one of the last songs we wrote for the album, and it seemed to tie things together.

"It's a song about urban decay and drugs and everything . . . about the way each person in a family is affected by the pressures of the inner city.

"You can't get away from the usual news routines of gang violence and drive-bys and everything else, but there's no reason to lose hope," Perez said. "And that's what we do in our music. We try to be constructive, give people some of that hope."

Perez dug deeper into the band's philosophy and past.

"We had to make a decision a long time ago . . . whether to just be a good sock hop band or something more," he said. "And I think the answer to that question had a lot to do with where we came from . . . this neighborhood."

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