Over the past few years it seemed that Los Lobos were marking time, their only releases being live affairs, one “unplugged” (Disconnected In New York) and a live rendition of their album Kiko. Both albums were in fact pretty good but fans yearning for the follow up to Tin Can Trust have had a five year wait for Gates Of Gold with the previews of the title song setting parts of the blogosphere on fire. The song, a mandolin driven mid tempo lurch was favourably compared to vintage Levon Helm, it’s theme of wonderment regarding an afterlife assessed as an acknowledgement of the band’s increasing years. It’s a fine song although a little too short for our liking, fizzling out just when we felt it should start to burn. As an introduction to the album it also sells itself short as around it Los Lobos deliver their usual heady mix of rock and blues and Mexican styles with several of the songs boasting an impressive sense of daring do pulling in jazz and psychedelic flurries and proving that they are still essential listening.
Made To Break Your Heart opens the album with a flourish. A bustling beat and jagged guitar underpins the vocals before shifting into a jackhammer riff and glorious guitar solo. When We Were Free utilises the studio to full effect with the guitars treated and distorted over a tremendous burbling bass and vibrant percussion. With Steve Berlin’s sax freewheeling along with jazz influenced guitar runs the song runs the gamut from prime time Joni Mitchell to Weather Report and there’s more sonic burps on There I Go, a song that sounds like Dr. John beaming in from outer space. It’s back to earth with a tremendous bump on the gutbucket rock and blues drive of Mis-Treater Boogie Blues, a veritable treat for the ears. There’s more boogie on Too Small Heart while I Believed In You goes back to basic 12 bar blues with barbed wire slide guitar and scuzzy rhythm giving it an all too authentic touch, you can well imagine the band, broke down but not busted hammering this out in a low-lit dive.
One gets the impression that Los Lobos at heart are still a bar band and could throw out songs like I Believed In You at the drop of a hat and do them better than most bands around. However writers David Hidalgo, Louis Perez and Cesar Rosas are also capable of tender ruminations alongside their perennial returns to their Latin roots. Poquito Para Aqui swings with a Columbian Cambian sway with the guitars reminiscent of Ry Cooder’s ventures into Cuban music while La Tumba Sera El Final is a cover of a Mexican song about following a lover to the tomb. As adept as ever at translating Latin themes into rock’n’roll they offer the excellent Magdalena, a rolling and rocky blues number with tumbling guitar and a wonderful juggernaut thrust halfway as they sing of Mary Magdalene. Finally, Song Of The Sun is a creation myth that opens with acoustic guitar strums leading one to expect a folk rock song in the LA Topanga canyon style. Instead the band invest it with a powerful driving rhythm that recalls English rockers such as Richard Thompson and again the only fault here is that the song is all too short.
Overall Gates of Gold is on a par with Tin Can Trust and one can imagine that if they were to concentrate on the concentrated excellence of songs such as Song Of The Sun and Gates Of Gold Los Lobos could come up with an Americana classic.