By J Howell
It’s funny how time flies, and frankly a bit unnerving to think that Los Lobos‘ masterpiece, Kiko, is almost old enough to drink legally. In celebration of the benchmark album’s twentieth anniversary, Shout! Factory has a whole lot of Kiko for Lobos fans new and old to enjoy.
First up is the anniversary edition remaster of the album proper. Without putting too fine a point on it, there’s a reason why Kiko seems to be almost everyone’s favorite record from East L.A.’s finest, and this remaster does Kiko justice and then some. To fully appreciate the album as more than just a stellar set of sixteen tracks, one has to consider the circumstances surrounding its release, as well as the atmosphere of popular music in 1992. While it’s true enough that the early Nineties were in many ways a golden age for the popular dissemination of adventurous music, there really wasn’t (and still isn’t) much to compare Kiko to.
Most casual listeners likely only prior knowledge of Los Lobos was from “La Bamba,” and it’s more than a little amusing to consider what those casual listeners may’ve thought upon first listen to Kiko, a record so many light-years beyond anything before and most records since. Aside from being more than the sum of its remarkable parts, Kiko is an interesting link between the more traditional, both in folk and rock terms, path Los Lobos tread before and what they’ve done since, particularly Louie Perez and David Hidalgo’s equally-amazing Latin Playboys. Even when considered solely in production terms, Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake’s evocative juxtaposition of high fidelty and beautiful audio obscura make Kiko a historically relevant piece of work. It’s easy to forget, here in the post-everything future, that prior to Kiko, records just didn’t sound like that, with the exception of other records Froom and/or Blake did around that time (see Suzanne Vega’s 99.9F or Tom Waits’ Bone Machine).
Brilliant production aside, the songs on Kiko represent a national treasure of a band at the height of their powers. So much has been written about Kiko from the time of its release that, for the sake of avoiding redundancy, I’ll just say that if you haven’t heard the record, you owe it to yourself to, and this expanded remaster is pretty damned great. There’s no reason for anyone to deprive themselves of the dreamy beauty of “Kiko And The Lavender Moon,” or the sparkling, gorgeous soul of “Saint Behind The Glass,” or any of the fourteen other gems here. Even twenty years on, it’s not often that any band covers so much musical ground so masterfully or cohesively as Los Lobos does here. Along with the original sixteen tracks, there’s two demo recordings and three live tracks culled from a performance for NPR in December of 1992. While there’s nothing particularly revelatory in the extras not already present in the original release, the demo tracks nicely illustrate just how well-considered the songs were before hitting the studio proper, and the live tracks are a pleasant example of the band’s interpretations of a few of Kiko‘s tracks live near the time of its release.
Fast-forwarding a few years, the Kiko Live CD and DVD document the band performing the now-classic album live in its entirety in 2006 at San Diego’s House Of Blues. Overall, the performances themselves are masterful, if relatively restrained. Los Lobos is in fine form here, though the band doesn’t stray too far from the recordings. While there’s little lacking in Los Lobos’ performance here, for some fans, the Kiko Live tracks may be just a touch on the tame side. Consider how far the band stretches out on “Kiko And The Lavender Moon” here. While both the performance on the DVD and this one are superb, Los Lobos plays it comparatively safe on Kiko Live. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it would be nice to see the band get just a little more “out” here and there, since they’re just so good at it. That said, the performances throughout are great, and it’s remarkable how Los Lobos nails it live, given how much creative work is present on the “other side of the glass” on the album.
What really makes the Kiko Live DVD essential for fans is the vignettes interspersed between the songs. There’s an awful lot of great, insightful footage of the band explaining the songs’ origins, the band’s origins, and the magic that seems to have made its way onto the record. While it’s always a treat to hear David Hidalgo and Louie Perez discuss songwriting, it’s also nice to hear more from Conrad Lozano, Steve Berlin, and especially Cesar Rosas than some fans may ever have before. For audio engineering nerds, the footage of Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake (some in the “bonus” section) is absolutely awesome, even if fans of the two have likely already read much of what they have to say here in interviews prior. It’s not hard to imagine that there may be yet another brief spike in the eBay prices of original-issue SansAmp pedals as a result of Froom and Blake’s commentary here. In addition, there are three bonus encore performances that venture into the traditional Latin element of Los Lobos’ oeuvre, and a particularly good, traditional version of “La Bamba” that is lovely and may surprise listeners only familiar with the Ritchie Valens (and later Los Lobos) version.
The Kiko Live CD has all of the good traits of the performances of the album proper present on the DVD, and leaves it at that. While it’s as thoroughly enjoyable, bereft of the “extras” on the DVD, it’s a little less essential for casual fans, but a rewarding listen nonetheless. Given how indispensable the DVD will be to longtime fans, it’s a little puzzling that the live album wasn’t included as audio files there, though it’s fair enough to make the argument for the better sound quality of a CD over mp3 files that occasionally accompany live DVDs. Ultimately, hardcore Lobos fans will likely want to pick up all three releases, though for the newly initiated the comparatively stripped-down live CD may be the runt of the litter.
All of the newly-available iterations of Kiko are great, though, and well worth checking out for fans new and old alike. After spending a considerable amount of time with multiple versions of these sixteen songs the last couple of weeks, I may have to give Kiko a rest for a bit, but even so, the multiple reappearances make me hopeful for at the very least expanded versions of later Los Lobos records and the two Latin Playboys records when their anniversaries arrive. A band has to be doing something awfully right to keep listeners wanting more after such a sizable helping. Los Lobos has been doing something awfully right for an awfully long time, and all three “new” versions of Kiko make for exquisite reminders.
The Kiko 20th Anniversary Edition is out today and can be ordered directly from Shout! Factory.