This excellent new album shows the band as a tour guide through their city’s sonic landscape, showcasing music from the 1940s through to the present day
When Los Lobos made their debut in 1978 with Los Lobos Del Este Los Angeles, they used Mexico’s regional music as a rich tapestry of source material to renovate. Now, 45 years later, they’ve turned Los Angeles into a similar catalog of folk material.
The L.A. that Los Lobos portray on Native Sons is not one of “bushy-bushy blonde hair dos,” but rather, a melting pot of cultures that came together to produce an energetic soundscape. From the blues, to garage rock, and zoot-suit rumba, Los Lobos re-imagine the California musical canon into a more culturally diverse one by including songs from underrated Chicano artists. While it certainly would have been interesting to hear Los Lobos cover N.W.A. or Snoop Dogg, they mainly stuck with rock ‘n’ roll.
The album opens with “Love Special Delivery,” a rollicking track from fellow Angelenos, Thee Midniters. The song is the perfect example of mid-sixties Los Angeles, with a fusion of surf and garage rock. Thee Midniters were one of the first Chicano rock groups to have a major hit, and they were a great inspiration to Los Lobos. In fact, Cesar Rosas [guitar/vocals] remembers going to see Thee Midniters perform in order to learn how to play their guitar riffs. A few years ago, when Rosas was working on solo material, he collaborated with the drummer of Thee Midniters, Aaron Ballesteros. While in the studio, they had an impromptu jam session with “Love Special Delivery” – this resulted in the drum track heard on the Native Sons album.
Moving back in time from 1966 to 1961, Barrett Strong’s “Misery” shows David Hidalgo’s soulful voice on full display. While Los Lobos’ cover doesn’t stray too far from the original, David Hidalgo mentions in the liner notes that this is one of his favorite tracks on the album. Barrett Strong, the co-writer of many Motown hits moved to Los Angeles along with the Motown label in the early 1970s. Even though Strong wasn’t technically from Los Angeles, Los Lobos show that you can be from anywhere in the world and still be embraced as an Angeleno.
A two-song medley of Buffalo Springfield pays homage to a group that informed the Los Angeles sound as the idealistic 1960s transformed into the sharper-edged 1970s. Playing country-rock with a psychedelic tinge, and singing lyrics that make the personal political, Buffalo Springfield used genre-bending techniques that made their mark on music history, and influenced Los Lobos when it came to finding their own sound. Their iteration of “Bluebird” transitions seamlessly into the politically-fed-up “For What It’s Worth,” the first of a few political messages on the album.
Further showing the importance of Chicano artists in Los Angeles’ musical history, their cover of Lalo Guererro’s “Los Chucos Sauves” captures the spirit of the Mexican-American “Pachuco” subculture. Mirroring the population of Los Angeles, the song blends together the sounds of American jazz and pop, as well as Latin rhythms of mambo and rumba. In classic Lobos style, they put their own electric spin on it with distorted guitar and a raunchy saxophone from Steve Berlin, creating a celebration of the zoot-suit-wearing youth of Los Angeles in the 1940s.
“Jamaica Say You Will” is a major representation of the 1970s Laurel Canyon community of artists. On the liner notes for the album, Louie Pérez Jr. [guitar/songwriter] mentioned, “I used to go over to David’s house after school and listen to records with him, and this song always resonated for me—such a beautiful melody. And the narrative was something I was attracted to… To this day, that’s been the template.” Jackson Browne is one of the great American songwriters, with a style that develops a story out of a handful of images. Deciphering the intricate harmonies behind Browne’s performance, Los Lobos split the verses between two different voices, giving the introspective Californian fable a fresh angle. The soft contemplation is abruptly brought to an end by their zydeco-infused cover of Percy Mayfield’s “Never No More,” which already sounds like a Los Lobos standard.
VIDEO: Los Lobos “Native Son”
The sole original song on the album, “Native Son” sketches a genuine portrait of Los Angeles. By following a “concrete river flowing from the mountains to the sea,” Los Lobos show us their Los Angeles. Instead of the over-romanticized conceit of L.A., “Native Son” shows the city as a cornerstone of their musical lives: “There’s music playing on the radio from a house there down the street.” Performed in a waltz-style, “Native Sons” is a love letter from the Angeleno to his own city.
Elsewhere on the album, Los Lobos create another link in the cover chain for “Farmer John.” In 1964, The Premiers had a hit with their cover of Don Harris and Dewey Terry’s 1959 song about being in love with a farmer’s daughter. Being a Chicano response to the ‘British invasion’ guitar groups, The Premiers are effectively brought into a greater light with Los Lobos’ inclusion of this song on their album.
Willie Bobo’s “Dichoso” is crooned entirely in Spanish, and is by far the most romantic song on the album. Los Lobos performed with Willie Bobo before he passed away a few years ago, making this the perfect way ensure the legacy of their departed friend. Although Willie Bobo grew up in Spanish Harlem, Los Angeles welcomed him as one of its own. Weaving Spanish-language songs together with English songs is a difficult feat to pull off, but Los Lobos do it with such ease that you don’t necessarily feel a difference.
It would be almost criminal to have an album dedicated to Los Angeles without a mention of the Beach Boys and Van Dyke Parks, who created the bright sounds of the surfin’ sixties. Instead of one of the classic teeny-bopper songs, Los Lobos opted for the more mature “Sail On, Sailor” from 1973.
The influence of WAR is instantly recognizable in the music of Los Lobos. By including this eight-minute jam song, the album engages with the social climates of both past and present. A few tracks after “For What It’s Worth,” the songs work together to show how music has always been a space to work through political ideologies, and is still effective today.
Lightening the mood with the up-tempo “Flat Top Joint,” Los Lobos show their support of saxophonist Steve Berlin’s other group, The Blasters. It also hints at the collaborative nature of Los Angeles’ music scene. Although the song is from the Blasters’ album American Music, Los Lobos re-contextualize it in the format of Californian music.
The album is brought to a close with The Jaguars’ soothing instrumental track, “Where Lovers Go.” Steve Berlin told American Songwriter that the song was simply a recommendation from a friend. By including the track on the album, however, the Jaguars are another group that Los Lobos are bringing out of obscurity. The melodic guitar ties together all the main themes present on the album, because where do all the romantics go if not the City of Angels?
Native Sons is an essential Los Lobos album, and makes for the perfect debut on their new label, New West Records. Beginning their career with their re-vamped versions of traditional Mexican songs, and well known for their work on the Ritchie Valens biopic, La Bamba, Los Lobos have always found a way to put their own spin on each song that they perform – this is especially present on Native Sons.
Being a young Latina woman who fantasizes about late-1960s life in Los Angeles, it’s hard to picture what this actually meant for people like me. The majority of music that remains popular from that period is white, and therefore is somehow removed from my identity. Los Lobos’ Native Sons, on the other hand, carves out the incredibly important place of Latin-American music of the time. It doesn’t go against the musical standards of California, but instead, supplements them with a unique Chicano personality that has always been present.