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Most bands don't grow; they either shuffle forward, tripping over lazy feet, or just stew in their own juices, smug and satisfied with being able to get out of bed and into the studio. Not Los Lobos: From East L.A. wedding band to world-music modernists in the span of almost two decades, Los Lobos has evolved every step of the way, even when galloping backward, as on 1988's return-to-roots La Pistola y El Corazon. After all, there aren't too many young men willing to play old-man corridos, especially with a major label footing the bill; not surprisingly, it ranks among the Lobos' worst sellers, since good intentions usually do bad box office. Coming as it did after three of the 1980s' best discs -- 1983's debut "...And a Time to Dance," 1984's bar-and-B follow-up How Will the Wolf Survive?, and 1987's follow-through By the Light of the Moon -- La Pistola offered definitive proof that exotica exists only to those who have never left their own back porch. If you think their roots are different from yours, you ain't stepped in front of a mirror in a very long time.
Since then, the Lobos have moved not only onward but way the hell upward: 1992's Kiko and '96's Colossal Head sound as though they were made by the best bar band on Mars. Colossal Head might well have been a more difficult and less fun album than, say, By the Light of the Moon, but it also proved that rock and roll can be complex, challenging, forward-looking, and otherworldly without losing that necessary human touch. Colossal Head -- born out of David Hidalgo and Louis Perez's work in The Latin Playboys with longtime Lobos producer Mitchell Froom and his henchman Tchad Blake -- was poetic in word and melody; it might even be described as a techno record, filled as it is with ambient studio effects and ethereal tangents. But at its soul, it was about the songs, from the bar-band stomp of "Mas y Mas" and "Everybody Loves a Train" to the ghostly roiling blues of "Life Is Good" and "Manny's Bones." Once traditionalists, they're now futurists, still the perfect wedding band for a party on the moon.
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Which is where the band's brand-new This Time comes in: Think of it as By the Light of Colossal Head, a sound-effects sculpture made of flesh and blood and computer wires and speaker cones and muscle and mixing boards. It's an amalgam of everything these boys have ever done, a cut-and-paste history of the future that beckons the early records (even the debut EP Just Another Band From East L.A., which Hollywood Records will reissue in the forthcoming months) and the later discs and the recent side projects -- which include Cesar Rosas' been-there-done-that Soul Disguise, Houndog (featuring David Hidalgo and Canned Heat's Mike Halby fuckin' up dem backporch blues), and the Playboys' just-released Dose. Ambient in spots, arena-rock crunchy in others, bar-band and/or "trad" more often than not, This Time is short (11 songs in 38 minutes), sharp ("Some Say, Some Do" is a protest song for the ages), and full of brilliant gumbo-jumbo you will never hear on English or Spanish radio, This Time is slightly ahead of its time. And, blessedly, a little behind it. And in case anyone forgets to mention it, this is the best rock-and-roll band in the world.