Mellowed-Out 1987 Album Showcases Band’s Contemplative Side and Virtuosic Musicianship
Los Lobos might have touted themselves as “just another band from East L.A.,” but it’s quite likely that even the group’s humble members recognized that few – if any – other artists in the late 1980s rivaled their soulful music, rousing performances, and eclectically blended arrangements. While lacking the commercial status of the quintet’s subsequent La Bamba release, By the Light of the Moon stands as the band’s most enjoyable excursion into American-hued soul, penetratingly reflective lyrics, and earnest roots rock. The music making is simply extraordinary.
These 11 songs come to life and out of the clouded, foggy sonic environment in which they’ve remained for more than two decades. For the first time, T Bone Burnett’s stripped-back production functions as it should. Namely, Los Lobos sound as if they’re playing at a small, sweaty neighborhood joint late on a Sunday night for an audience of locals, friends, and family.
The group’s uncanny ability to switch between instruments and effortlessly play each as if it’s their innate right – listen to the seamless fashion in which electric and acoustic guitars, marimbas, organs, saxophones, harmonicas, and percussion create strikingly memorable soundscapes – comes to light amidst a warmer, airier, more organic and deep-black background. David Hidalgo’s sweet, honeysuckle timbre, he and Cesar Rosas’ overlapping tremolo guitars, and stacks of interwoven rhythms jump with vibrant electricity.
Shifting into storytelling mode, Los Lobos use By the Light of the Moon as an opportunity to meditate on everyday America and channel the fate of normal communities. Issues of faith, mortality, love, disillusionment, and melancholy inform narratives that are on the same socially conscious level as those of period-era Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp. As for the songs, they crackle, waltz, shuffle, dance, tremble, and kick. The band almost dares listeners not to care.
Whether leaning into twangy two-step country-rock (“One Night In America”), dual-guitar shootout rockabilly (“Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes”), swinging jump R&B (“Is This All There Is?”), tequila-spiked East Los Angeles-style rock (“Set Me Free (Rosa Lee)”), searing Latin-tinged blues (“My Baby’s Gone”), or poignant gospel-lined folk (“River of Fools”), Los Lobos’ Tex-Mex gumbo continually impresses and delights.
Don’t pass up one of the best releases of the 1980s and one of Los Lobos’ definitive statements. You’ll never hear a better pressing. Boleros, rancheros, and more await!