Los Lobos’ Native Sons is a top-tier covers collection and a heartfelt love letter to Los Angeles.
Long before their days of weighty concepts and studio experimentation, Los Lobos cut their teeth as a wedding band, doggedly gigging across Los Angeles. Relying on a deep reservoir of crowd-pleasing covers, the band honed a particular set of skills: an ability to capture the familiar contours of beloved songs while still adding something of their own personal panache. It’s an ability that has proven bedrock throughout their long-running career, and it’s brought to the foreground with Native Sons, a collection of standards and obscurities associated with LA songwriters.
It’s tempting to say that an album like this offers freedom, or at least a kind of busman’s holiday, for a group that has long shouldered the burden of being arguably the most prominent of Mexican-American bands. They have admirably stewarded this position, and all the responsibilities entailed, with a handsome catalog of albums that have grown increasingly world-weary and politically engaged. Native Sons, on the other hand, very often plays like a party album, highlighting the band’s muscle but also their light touch: listen to how nimbly they navigate the swingin’ jump blues “Never No More,” or to their good-natured groove on “Farmer John,” a song they’ve been playing for decades. When the song calls for it, Los Lobos can ratchet up their intensity, bringing piledriving momentum to Thee Midniters’ “Love Special Delivery” and pushing “Los Chucos Suaves” into a frenzy of percussion and horns. (Special kudos to sax player Steve Berlin, whose raw, juke-joint playing is integral to the record’s endearingly ragged spirit.) The album’s momentum stalls only when it downshifts into mid-tempo FM radio fare, like Stephen Stills’ “Bluebird,” though it’s worth singling out War’s “The World is a Ghetto” for providing the band with an excuse to stretch out for a full eight-minute odyssey.
Of course, Los Lobos couldn’t fully opt out of their ambassadorial role even if they wanted to, so while there’s not much in the way of explicit politics here, Native Son stands for something nonetheless: its intermingling of classic rock stalwarts with little-knowns and also-rans makes some implicit arguments about the canon, and its melting pot of blues, folk, rock, and Mexican music embodies a borderlessness that transcends artificial division. More than anything, the album revels in the specificity of time and provenance: it celebrates a city in all its sprawl and complexity, shielded from the culture war’s insistence on reducing everyone and everywhere into simple symbolism. The closest Los Lobos gets to saying all this out loud is in the title song, the album’s lone original; it’s presented not as any kind of thesis statement, but as a lilting love song to the city herself. The affection is palpable, perfectly summarizing the heartfelt intentions of this top-tier covers collection.
Published as part of Album Roundup — August 2021.