In typical fashion, Los Lobos has wrapped up a completely atypical Christmas album. Tear it open, and “Llego Navidad” rings joyfully with songs that are far from the kind of novelty gifts we shove under the bed the day after the big day.
This lively music was made to light up homes all through the year, year after year. “Llego Navidad” is simply the new Los Lobos album, which is never anything near simple. It ranks high with any of the 17 tremendously wide-ranging studio sets the quintet has produced, beginning in 1977 with “Del Este De Los Angeles” (Just Another Band From East L.A.).
A good part of the reason lies in the incredible fact that the same four men who united in 1973 are still at it quite avidly, along with sax and keyboards player Steve Berlin, lifted in 1984 from the Blasters and the fifth highly musical wolf ever since. Most notably, these consummate players play!
“Llego Navidad” (Christmas is Here) offers a gripping mix of traditional Mexican tunes, Tex-Mex covers, and one Ritchie Valens-inspired original, performed brilliantly with mostly acoustic instruments. “La Rama” (The Branch) ignites the album in the style of Veracruz folk music known as son jarocho. Its shimmering melody and festive singing instantly invigorate the body and soul. Picture the boughs of the tree shaking, the tinsel glistening.
“Reluciente Sol” (Brilliant Sun) follows suit, a salsa that beams with bliss, its bottom heated by Berlin’s honking saxophone. Then it’s on to a Southwestern, accordion-driven take on Freddy Fender’s “It’s Christmas Time in Texas,” sung from the heart by David Hidalgo. The sprightly pace of it matches Hidalgo’s absolutely ageless voice.
The rambling ranchera, “Amarga Navidad” (Bitter Christmas), features Cesar Rosas vividly in the spotlight, and the cumbia, “Arbolito de Navidad” (Christmas Tree), bounces with irresistibly quirky Mexican panache. Of the four obvious Christmas songs, one draws the listener right into the spirit with its reindeer name-dropping and shouts of “Ole Ole!” Through any other hands or voices, “Donde Esta Santa Claus” (Where is Santa Claus) might seem goofy. But customized by Los Lobos, it becomes a classy, soulful, tons-of-fun experience.
Los Lobos’ typical, atypical fashion is really never less than that, and it never belies its roots. Place this five stars of an album on the top of the tree. Merry Christmas!
–– Tom Clarke
Release: Oct. 4, 2019