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Music Review: Los Lobos – Kiko [20th Anniversary Edition]

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With an album this great, it’s tempting to say, there are two types of people in the world: those who know they must have this upgraded anniversary edition of Kiko and those whose response to the title track is, “Who and the lavender what?” Or that you either love Kiko or you’ve never heard it. To those familiar with Los Lobos’ landmark 1992 release, owning this new version is not even a decision, but a reflexive action.

To mark the 20th anniversary, Shout Factory has released a new, remastered CD edition of Kiko that augments the album’s original 16 tracks with five demos (a new process for the band, starting with this album) and live performances from 1993 of two of Kiko’s songs. The remastering takes a gorgeous-sounding album and exposes all the depth of the mix and dynamics of the broad range of instruments and sounds used on it, turning it into the kind you use to demo a set of high-end speakers. If you’re familiar with the “brick walling” that makes so much of today’s music sound overly loud and exhausting to listen to, this is the opposite of that.

While it might be a stretch (if not irreverent) to compare this album with an immaculate conception, at the time of its original release, Kiko was nearly as substantial a surprise as Mary and Joseph’s little bundle of joy.

Well-received initial albums, respectable sales, and a Grammy award were a prelude to Los Lobos’ breakout hit, “La Bamba,” in 1987. In typical rock and roll fashion, having a number one single wound up being a mixed blessing. The band then pulled a Nebraska—taking a surprisingly non-commercial turn—with an exceptional set of traditional Mexican songs, La Pistola y el Corazón, a commercial disappointment which, nonetheless, earned them another Grammy.

Their subsequent album, 1990’s The Neighborhood, was a substantial next step in their natural musical progression which had the misfortune of following a massive hit that sounded very little like anything else on the album. According to Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin, the process of The Neighborhood was “not that pleasant.” They then spent great sums of money mounting a year-long tour behind the album, and returned home, exhausted and broke.

While far from desperate then, the band’s circumstances were equally far from ideal. They undoubtedly could have cashed in by grinding out oldies as “The La Bamba Band,” as the Lobos’ Louie Pérez called them; there must have been some temptation to become the world’s preeminent Richie Valens tribute band.

Despite their progression as songwriters and polished performers through the course of their previous four albums, followers of the band couldn’t have been prepared for the radical departure from The Neighborhood (or anything else Los Lobos had done) that Kiko represented. Not unlike the transformation the Talking Heads accomplished in the transition from the spiky, stripped-down sound of More Songs About Buildings and Food, to the experimental songwriting and post-psychedelic soundscapes of Fear of Music and Remain in Light, Los Lobos undertook a dramatic, if unplanned evolution between the two albums.

Just as Brian Eno became an aural architect for Talking Heads’ new sound, Los Lobos began a collaborative partnership with producer Mitchell Froom and engineer Tchad Blake that crafted sounds for Kiko that simmer and undulate. As the band and recording team have related, when it came to instrumentation and recording techniques, nothing was off the table, be it running guitars through cheap, pawnshop amps or placing mics down drainpipes or in trash cans to capture the desired sounds.

Kiko’s most distinctive tracks are built on a pioneering hi-fi/lo-fi foundation, a sacred-and-profane confluence of sweet sounds (accordion, harp) with corrosive distortion and mystifying instrumentation. On the album’s indelible title song, a sinister “Three Blind Mice” theme plays with the wobbly horn-like tones of a Chamberlain, over ominous bass notes on the piano, as preface to a buoyant accordion-and-guitar melody, evoking the Mexican cumbia David Hidalgo originally envisioned when writing the music. Louie Pérez’ lyrics for “Kiko and the Lavender Moon” are as impressionistic as the Japanese renga poetry he had been studying at the time. As sung by Hidalgo over a percolating backdrop of swirling instrumentation, the verses suggest dreaming as well as a waking detachment from reality. Just as the music refuses to be bound by a single style, the lyrics provide hints at what they intend while suggesting a myriad of interpretations.

On the equally striking and unique “Saint Behind the Glass,” a plucked harp delicately etches a lilting, 6/8, son jarocho-flavored reverie. Taking a rare turn as lead vocalist, Pérez sings impressionistically of domestic and religious imagery, of (presumably) St. Joseph, the patron of carpenters and Christ’s adoptive father, watching over a family as they sleep, cry, and simply live. There is no deep message here, merely an affirmation that you may be comforted by the presence of the saints in your life, whether or not you acknowledge them. The mystical, mildly hallucinogenic atmosphere of these two songs, back-to-back on the album, is unlike anything Los Lobos, or many of their contemporaries, had attempted. This approach to songwriting and arrangement informed the sound of their long-running side project, The Latin Playboys, exemplified by their indescribable track, “Mustard,” as well as subsequent Los Lobos music.

As Berlin puts it, prior to Kiko, the band had been “segregating [their] influences, treating them parochially.” The integration of their myriad influences, filtered through the anything goes arrangements and recording techniques, likewise imbues the more conventional songs with atmospheric touches that lend the album the air of something bleeding through from an imperceptible, unseen dimension, especially on these two central songs.

Like the title track of The Neighborhood, songwriters Hildago and Peréz also respond to the realities of this dimension, with the humanity that characterizes so much of their best material. The gritty images of “Angels With Dirty Faces,” inspired by the homeless who populate the streets of the rundown L.A. neighborhood where the band did the initial work on the album, convey (as Pérez says) “the dignity we should bestow on them for being survivors.” Hildago sings of breaking down the door to “Reva’s House” to intervene in “something [likely a sexual assault] goin’ on.” One of the “Two Janes” is so badly abused, she convinces the other—who had been “happy as can be”—to join her in suicide.

On these real world songs, the sometimes disorienting soundscapes of the more mystical selections are less evident, with arrangements relying on traditional instrumentation, a dazzling array of guitar tones, and innovative drum and percussion combinations.

Cesar Rosa, the Lobos’ other principal songwriter, contributes numbers more in keeping with Los Lobos’ R&B and blues roots, providing Kiko’s links to the band’s roots rock tradition. The hard-driving boogie of “That Train Don’t Stop Here” is propelled by heavily tremeloed guitar that sounds as if it might have been recorded on a machine with less than reliable tape speed. On tracks that are “merely” solid Los Lobos songs, like Rosa’s “Whiskey Trail,” Froom and Blake leave the adornments on the shelf and let the road-seasoned band show how tight they are on straightforward rock and roll numbers. There’s enough of the band’s classic, road band sound to provide continuity from The Neighborhood.

Kiko truly was an album that should have been widely recognized as an artistic breakthrough for Los Lobos, as Remain in Light was for Talking Heads. Among many critics, it was. Like too many other rock and roll masterworks however, the record-buying public greeted Kiko with a shrug. Although Froom’s work on the album would be recognized with a Grammy nomination for Producer of the Year, like other great classics, (Love’s Forever Changes for instance), Kiko’s excellence wasn’t met with commensurate chart success. Kiko peaked at #143 on the Billboard album chart in 1992; Love, like Los Lobos, one of the great LA bands, managed only #154 with their masterpiece.

If you passed on it the first time, don’t make the same mistake again. The 20th anniversary release of Kiko is a listening experience you don’t know how much you’re missing.

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About James A. Gardner