Los Lobos – Kiko (1992; 2012 reissue)

It is still, by any measure, their most unusual, yet satisfying album — that moment when the power and mystery of Los Lobos music found its fullest flowering in the off-the-wall pop atmospheres created by Mitchell Froom.

They’d put out tougher albums, albums that connected more directly with their Mexican-American heritage, even albums like 1990′s The Neighborhood that similarly attempted to expand their musical palate, but they never put out an album that did a better job of weaving all of those impulses together into a crossover format.

Producer Froom (along with Tchad Blake, who would later helm the Latin Playboys offshoot band) weren’t simply crafting an assimilationist curio, however. They never lost sight, even while applying these thrilling new impressionistic textures, of what made these songs by David Hidalgo and Louis Perez so topically brave, and still so foot-stampingly propulsive.

In so doing, Kiko — set for reissue as a 20th anniversary edition on August 21, 2012 by Shout! Factory, along with a more straight-forward 2006 live recording called Kiko Live — helped smash down the secondary barrier that was holding Los Lobos back: The post-”La Bamba” caricature of them as Mexican-folk rockers.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: David Hidalgo's Houndog project saw him get together with vocalist Mike Halby of Canned Heat fame to create this fantastic chunk ‘o blues.]

It’s a mysterious, completely transfixing triumph, a stunning amalgamation that stirred in a tasty penchant for R&B, looped-in vintage sound effects, and these mystical border-town atmospheres — all while dealing with a series of sharply modern inner-city topics like the scourge of homelessness (in “Angels with Dirty Faces”), the horror of rape (“Reva’s House”), and demons of alcoholism (“Whiskey Trail”).

Los Lobos certainly still hit a few four-on-the-floor grooves, notably on “The Train Don’t Stop Here.” But at the same time Kiko goes deeper into concurrent influences, even as it goes deeper into the band’s unique cultural milieu: You hear the sweet symphonic pop of the Beatles in “When the Circus Comes,” and the festive twilight mysteries of the barrio in “Rio de Tenampa.” There is a resolute joy about “Kiko and the Lavender Moon,” and a humbling grace to “Saint Behind the Glass.”

Taken together, they create their own world of sound, influenced by Los Lobos’ East L.A. roots, but not bound to them. Even today, this remains the band’s most intriguing moment.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • JC Mosquito

    I always thought “The Wreck of the Carlos Rey” from Los Lobos’ 2004 album The Ride was one of the spookiest masterpieces of all time. The song features the legendary English guitarist Richard Thompson, and Los Lobos and Thompson amalgamated the various musical styles they have mastered to produce a disaster ballad equal in some ways to Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, but more eerie in its execution.

    From the review, it sounds like Kiko is the the album that got them past having to be defined by the Richie Valens soundtrack for the rest of their lives. I’ve not heard it, but I’ll have to track it down.