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POP ALBUM REVIEWS

Immigrants' hopes and heartbreaks

September 12, 2006|Agustin Gurza;Richard Cromelin

Los Lobos

"The Town and the City"

(Hollywood)

* * * 1/2

While politicians and protesters were busy marching and making speeches on immigration in recent months, East L.A.'s acclaimed Chicano rockers were in a recording studio quietly preparing their own statement on the subject. The result is this outstanding new album, due in stores today. It's a subtle, suggestive and at times ambiguous look at an issue often drawn in trite extremes of pro and con, black and white.

This set of 13 evocative songs is told from a clear immigrant point of view, as you might expect of four Mexican Americans (and one Anglo fellow traveler) who have found fame and stature, if not fortune, while remaining loyal, artistically and personally, to their barrio roots.

But in a debate where talk is cheap, the strength of this work rests heavily on what's left unsaid. This is an album in the classic, pre-digital sense, in which the very sequence of songs suggests meaning and connection.

Los Lobos (who perform Oct. 13 at Disney Hall) use lyrical images and moody soundscapes to convey what it feels like to be an immigrant. Buzz words -- border, illegals, cheap labor, homeland security -- are banned. They speak of hope and heartache, ambition and disenchantment, sacrifices and healing.

Because immigration is always a journey, the album opens with "The Valley," which evokes the dawn of a new life in a promised land. But already, layers of sonic dissonance create an unsettling undercurrent. Dreams of arrival immediately turn into the droning, chain-gang blues of "Hold On," about the oppressive drudgery of low-skill work: "Killing myself just to keep alive/ Killing myself to survive."

The songs then explore the unexpected changes immigration always brings to people who undertake it. The lively, carefree "Chuco's Cumbia," with its Chicano calo (slang) and hot sax, serves as transition to a cool new culture. But "Little Things" laments the loss of values and "Don't Ask Why" the emptiness of shattered illusions.

Near the end, the gospel-tinged "Free Up" urges a philosophical adjustment to a snappy beat. Happiness comes to those who wait, for the peace of death. "When it comes my time/ You won't find me cryin' / When I'm gone/ Everything will be fine."

Yet the album closes with the torn and unsettled yearning of "The Town." Where has the journey led us? Full circle to dreams of a better place, always out of reach:

"I can go there when I dream/ I close my eyes and it's all I see./ The town where I come from."

Agustin Gurza

--

The Mars Volta

"Amputechture" (GSL/Universal)

* * *

This is the first of the iconoclastic L.A. band's three albums that doesn't tell a unified story, though given their surreal approach, we might not know that if they hadn't told us. It doesn't really matter too much, because it's best to treat the lyrics as one impressionistic element of the work rather than text to be parsed.

Visceral power and mournful, disquieting atmosphere are the heart of the Mars Volta experience. Singer Cedric Bixler Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez have set themselves up as popularity-be-damned visionaries, pursuing their muse into a resurgent blend of progressive rock and jazz fusion.

Their independence -- and their virtuosity -- has brought them their own kind of popularity, and "Amputechture" (in stores today) will disappoint only those fans who were hoping to see them head into deep space. It mainly restates their agenda, in impressive fashion.

The punishing nature of the fusion furiosity is relieved by more soothing vocal sections. There's something of the oracle in Bixler's steely, high-pitched voice. He can make you care about even the most fragmented fever-dream imagery, as Rodriguez-Lopez, with help from the Red Hot Chili Peppers' guitarist John Frusciante, leads the band once again into parts unknown.

-- Richard Cromelin

--

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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