Los Lobos are a band I immensely respect for their great musicianship. Admittedly, my opinion is based on a relatively limited amount of their music I’ve heard thus far. Not counting singles, their impressive catalog includes 17 studio albums, four live records, three compilations and a couple of EPs, spanning 40-plus years. When I spotted their new release Native Sons and noticed it was largely a collection of covers, I wasn’t sure what to expect. To say it upfront, I’ve been enjoying this album a lot!
I don’t mind when a music artist or a band throws in some covers on their albums. After all, that’s what two of my all-time favorite bands The Beatles and The Rolling Stones did early in their recording careers. But an entire album of covers? Plus, for a band in their fifth decade one could be forgiven to wonder whether they have run out of ideas or were looking to make a quick buck. Well, I don’t believe that’s the case here. Plus, I’ve read a half dozen reviews and it strikes me they are all very positive.
The overarching theme of Native Sons, which was released on July 30, is that all tracks are by artists and bands who are from Los Angeles originally or found their way there. Apart from 12 covers ranging from popular artists like Jackson Browne and The Beach Boys to lesser known acts such as Thee Midniters and Lalo Guerrero, the album features one original, which is the title track.
“Well, most of the artists we covered were actually people who came to Los Angeles from somewhere else, like me,” explained the band’s longtime saxophonist Steve Berlin during an interview with American Songwriter. “That’s one of the beauties of the city—people come from all different places. But once you get there, you’re there and you know where you’re supposed to be. But the other guys in the band, they’re natives, which is where the title came from.”
Time for some music. Here’s the opener Love Special Delivery by Thee Midniters, a Chicano rock band who like Los Lobos were from East L.A. The song, co-written by lead vocalist Willie Garcia and bassist Jimmy Espinoza, was the title track of their 1966 studio album. “It’s special to me because Thee Midniters were a group that I grew up listening to around my neighborhood in East LA in the ‘60s as a kid, and I just always loved the groove to that song,” Los Lobos guitarist and vocalist Cesar Rosas told Variety. Indeed, a great garage rocker I had never heard of before! Like is the case for all covers, Los Lobos’ rendition stays pretty close to the original, which you can listen to here.
Los Chucos Suaves by Lalo Guerrero is the only Spanish tune on the album. According to Wikipedia, the guitarist, singer and farm labor activist was best known for his strong influence on later Latin musical artists. Guerrero also represents an artist who was not a native Los Angelino but moved to L.A. in the 1940s. Lalo Guerrero Y Sus Cincos Lobos recorded Los Chucos Suaves in 1949, as the explanatory notes of the below clip explain, which add Guerrero is known as “The Father of Chicano Music.” Again, I’m also including a link to the original, if you’re curious. Here’s Los Lobos’ version – just incredible how versatile this band is!
Next up is the great title track, which as noted above is the only original song on the album. Native Son was co-written by Louis Perez (words) and David Hidalgo (music). The lyrics pretty much say it all. An excerpt: …No matter where I lay my head/No matter how far I’ve run/I dream about the day you’ll take me back/I’m your native son…Love that warm sound!
Perhaps the vocal highlight of the album is the excellent version of Sail on, Sailor, a tune by The Beach Boys. Credited to Brian Wilson, Tandyn Almer, Van Dyke Parks, Ray Kennedy and Jack Rieley, the song first appeared as the opener of the band’s 19th studio album Holland from January 1973. It was also released separately as a single later that month, climbing to no. 49 on the Billboard Hot 100, the first of only five U.S. top 50 singles The Beach Boys scored during the ’70s. Their significant ’60s chart success, especially during the first half of the decade, was history. The original is here. Now check out Los Lobos. Apart from being excellent musicians, these guys also can sing!
The last track I’d like to highlight is Flat Top Joint, originally by East L.A. compadres The Blasters. Written by Dave Alvin, the great rock & roll tune was first included on The Blasters’ debut album American Music from 1980. The explanatory notes to the below clip recall a cool anecdote: After a Blasters’ show at The Country Club in Reseda, Los Lobos handed Phil Alvin a cassette. “Hey! We’re a band from East L.A.!” Phil responded: “We’re from East L.A. too!” Later, the Blasters asked the band to open for them at the Whisky a Go Go, which eventually led to Los Lobos’ first label signing with Slash Records. There’s a second connection between the two bands. Steve Berlin was playing with The Blasters before he joined Los Lobos in 1984. Here’s the excellent original. And here’s how Los Lobos covers it. Man, that tune just rocks!
Native Sons, which appears on New West Records and was produced by Los Lobos, is the band’s 17th studio album. Los Lobos have been around since 1973. Four of their five members are original members: Cesar Rosas (vocals, guitar, mandolin), Conrad Lozano (bass, guitarron, vocals), Louis Perez (drums, guitar, percussion, vocals) and David Hidalgo (vocals, guitar, accordion). As noted above, Steve Berlin (saxophone, percussion, flute, midsax, harmonica, melodica) joined in 1984.
The band is embarking on a busy U.S. tour today in Costa Mesa, Calif. The full schedule is here.
Sources: Wikipedia; American Songwriter; Variety; Discogs; Songkick; YouTube