Saturday, November 21, 2009

CD review: Los Lobos delightfully reimagines Disney songs

Los Lobos tackles the Disney catalog in its latest release.

By Chauncey Mabe

When I first learned that Los Lobos was about to put out an album of Disney songs, I was righteously indignant.

Such a misguided project could only be a sellout, at best, and, at worst, a complete collapse of creative drive. What in the world could the trailblazing East L.A. Chicano rockers have in common with Cliff Edwards, as Jiminy-freaking-Cricket, crooning When You Wish Upon a Star?!?

Ah, but that was before I actually put the disc in my CD player and, with fear and trembling, pushed “play.” I was immediately knocked out by the surging, highly syncopated Tex-Mex brio of Heigh Ho, sung in an unrestrained Spanish that made me laugh out loud with delight.

By the time I got to track number seven, The Ugly Bug Ball, with its down-and-dirty lead guitar and a vocal that – I swear – keens with loneliness and sexual frustration, I realized Los Lobos Goes Disney proves yet again that this is one of the great rock outfits of all time.

That’s not to say children can’t safely be exposed to these raucous and thoroughly reimagined versions of Disney classics. This is first and foremost a kids' record. But unlike most of its ilk, it’s also an album that grown-ups will find delivers increasing subtleties of pleasure with repeat listens. And if you’ve ever been stuck on a road trip with a vanload of children, that’s more than an artistic achievement. It’s a public service.

Los Lobos pulls off this magic simply by not compromising musical integrity just because these are Disney songs. The band members – singer/guitarists David Hidalgo, Louie Perez and Cesar Rosas, plus singer/bassist Conrad Lozano and sax player Steve Berlin (plus guest drummer Cougar Estrada) – take the same ruggedy eclectic approach that has gained them a cult following that includes Paul Simon and Elvis Costello.

Which is to say, they dismantle these Disney songs, cook off the treacle, and put them back together with Los Lobos’ trademark recipe of rockabilly, punk, blues, jazz, country, and several different strains of Latin music.

“We’re all really happy with it,” says Berlin. “The kids' record doesn’t sound like a kids' record. It just sounds like Los Lobos playing funky old songs, so I imagine over time, we’ll probably be integrating some of those songs into our set.”

Many bands do lose their creative drive over years – just give Wilco’s latest, Wilco (The Album) a listen – but, as this disc shows, Los Lobos still channels a ferocious energy. That’s remarkable for a group that got its start in 1974 as a bunch of high school friends trying to imitate their rock heroes. They played weddings, parties and restaurants. It was only when they started incorporating their parents’ music that they hit upon their unique signature sound.

Los Lobos had its breakout album in 1984 with Will the Wolf Survive?, produced by T-Bone Burnett. The band had its biggest success in 1987, with a cover of Richie Valens’ La Bamba, recorded for the biopic starring Lou Diamond Philips. But Los Lobos has toured and recorded steadily over the dedaces, producing several albums – By the Light of the Moon, Kiko, 2006’s The Town and the City – recognized today as masterpieces of Americana.

And that’s the sensibility they bring to Los Lobos Goes Disney, which would more accurately be called Disney Goes Los Lobos. Bella Notte, for example, from Lady and the Tramp, gets a thorough norteño workout, while The Bare Necessities, one of two songs from The Jungle Book, becomes a snappy zydeco two-step. I Will Go Sailing No More, from Toy Story, is a heartbreaking folk ballad, while Cruella De Vil sounds like Kurt Weill backed by a crack jazz-rock lounge band.

The frenetically happy Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah is slowed down to a lazy country blues that Roger Miller would recognize in a heartbeat. Los Lobos Does Disney ends with a stirring instrumental medley -- a surf-music version of When You Wish Upon a Star that morphs into a Tex-Mex accordion take on It’s a Small, Small World (a song I’d hoped to never hear again in my lifetime, but here made more than tolerable.)

It’s worth nothing that Los Lobos Goes Disney not only confirms the inventiveness of this rock band. It also casts a fresh light on the brilliant songcraft of the writers Disney has tapped through the years, from Frank Churchill and Larry Morey to Randy Newman, Richard and Robert Sherman, Allie Wrubel and Ray Gilbert.

That these songs are elastic enough to hold their shape through the rough treatment Los Lobos puts them through is a testament to all concerned.

Chauncey Mabe is the former books editor of the Sun-Sentinel. He can be reached at Visit him on Facebook.

For a free listen to Los Lobos Goes Disney – or any of the band’s album’s – visit the band's Website.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review Chauncey. I would never have given this a listen if you hadn't said that it was good. I listened to a few of the songs and agree that they are imaginative and not at all what I expected them to be like.

Sean said...

They seem like they're at that point where they just cannot make a bad album!