ALBUM REVIEW by Victor Stranges
Casual observers of the East Los Angeles band Los Lobos may be forgiven for the stereotypical image of a Mexican folk-rock group in the 1980s that played 1950s Ritchie Valens covers, “La Bamba”, “Donna” and “Come On Let’s Go.”
Whilst it’s true that they enjoyed massive success from their songs appearing on the “La Bamba” soundtrack in 1987, their influence on modern record-making and song mastery is misunderstood and their musical efforts have been largely misappropriated in rock’s mainstream consciousness.
The year was 1992 and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Seattle newcomers, Nirvana, was already the mainstay on radio. Flannelette shirts and ripped jeans were the “no image” image that was being pumped through to the MTV generation. Released on 26th May 1992, “Kiko” would redefine Los Lobos by single-handedly dismantling the Mexican rock cover band myth on one album.
Produced by Mitchell Froom (Crowded House, Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney) and Los Lobos, “Kiko” removed the cliched assortment of folk instruments and replaced them with unconventional production techniques utilizing an array of musical gadgets, guitar effects, strange and kooky keyboard sounds, and whacked-out tipsy horn arrangements.
The songs are predominantly and beautifully written by David Hidalgo and Louie Pérez with occasional contributions from Cesar Rosas and Leroy Preston. The simplicity of a roots-rock blues rhythm combined with a Mexican-American musical leaning was woven into a new type of fabric that was held together by its visionary producers and studio engineer Tchad Blake (Arctic Monkeys, Peter Gabriel, Tom Waits).
The album kicks off with the iconic drumbeat of “Dream In Blue” which descends into rhythmic defibrillation of chaotic fits and starts. Drop-dead gorgeous melodies crash into distorted feedback with ominous bass lines providing a new type of musical contortion not seen or heard since Zappa’s poppier moments.
“Wake Up Dolores” is like a song played backward and then reversed during mix-down; not literally, but in terms of its feel. “Angels with Dirty Faces” yet again has that backward feel that makes it so appealing and uneasy, whilst dealing with the issue of homelessness, not in a political way, but via a personal vignette.
“ With one shoe on
And one shoe lost
Stands a wounded man
Who just laughs it off
And the angels with dirty faces go it alone”
– Angels with Dirty Faces
There are some lighter foot-tapping John Lee Hooker-type moments like “That Train Don’t Stop Here” which deals with love gone away, whilst darker subject matters such as rape (Reva’s House), alcoholism (Whiskey Trail), and child abuse (“Two Janes”) are honestly dealt with as matters of conscience and corazon.
“Kiko And The Lavender Moon” is one of the album’s finest musical explorations which can only be described as Duke Ellington meeting cabaret musicians in a car park. It is unsettling as it is glorious using light and shade whilst ultimately hanging unresolved on a knife’s edge.
“Short Side of Nothing” is a song to find solace in… “here I am on the short side of nothing, all alone…. can’t find my way home.” The song speaks of hopelessness and the rootlessness of not fitting into a community or family; a disconnect that melodically ends on an unpredictable E7 chord that leaves one hanging for more.
“Saint Behind The Glass” and the instrumental “Arizona Skies” are very moving and are welcome deviations in an album that leaves its listener hanging in the balance.
“Kiko” broke new ground in a time when grunge dominated. The band’s saxophonist/keyboardist, Steve Berlin, remembers ...
“Kiko was special because of the thresholds and the barriers that we broke through. I don’t know if there are any of those barriers left. We broke through that shell and we’ve lived on the other side of that every record since.”
“I just think the culture, the way things are now, make it impossible to make a record like Kiko now. Now with lo-fi, there’s a whole genre of records that sound like Kiko. But in 1991, there wasn’t much in terms of mixing hi-fi and lo-fi stuff. I’m not saying we were the first-ever. But it’s certainly the first time we explored the idea of combining something damaged beyond words with something as beautiful as we could make it.”
In 1992 I had never heard anything like “Kiko” and I haven’t heard anything like it since. This would have to surely be the band’s finest record. The album format died a long time ago and this is possibly one of the last great albums that can be heard in its entirety in one sitting. And yet, they still call themselves “just another band from East LA.”