In the pop music industry's pigeonholed universe, ethnicity is a double-edged sword. Groups rooted outside the mainstream are often celebrated for their novelty and credibility, yet stuck in a ghetto of limited, fringe appeal.
Los Angeles' Los Lobos based their sound on a distinctive blend of rock & roll and influences from their Mexican-American heritage. They attained commercial success by playing the songs of Ritchie Valens, and won a 1983 Grammy for best Mexican-American performance. But while their latest album is filled with ethnic flavoring, very little of it hails from south of the border.
Since making 1988's all-Spanish-language La Pistola y El Corazón, Los Lobos have transmuted into something of a multicultural Everyband. On The Neighborhood, the quintet portions out Cajun, country, Chicago blues, and gritty R&B, all with easy skill and conviction (not to mention singer- guitarist David Hidalgo's striking violin contributions). The results are, to say the least, diverse.
''Down on the Riverbed'' has a swampy Little Feat/New Orleans feel; ''I Walk Alone'' lays blistering guitar into a hip-shaking boogie. Following ''Deep Dark Hole'' (nonsense lyrics sung over a track that resembles Johnny Cash records), there's a frantic cover of Staxman Jimmy McCracklin's ''Georgia Slop'' that twists like crazy. The record also includes tender acoustic lullabyes (''Little John of God,'' ''Be Still''), a crisp bit of Western country-rock (''The Giving Tree''), and a devastating horn-tinged Chicago blues (''I Can't Understand,'' cowritten by the venerable Willie Dixon). Amazingly, none of these efforts sound hollow or clumsy Los Lobos grab the styles firmly and make them sound like their life's work. Despite the disconcerting lack of focus, what's in this musical melting pot is mighty tasty. B+