Often seen as a sign of artists and bands lacking in imagination, or as being stop-gaps and transitional works, covers albums tend to be maligned and ignored even when done fantastically well. But when artists curate wisely, and imbue the recordings with their own artistic DNA, these projects can often become fan favourites. From David Bowie’s Pin Ups to Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series, or from to Bob Dylan’s mammoth Frank Sinatra homage project, many covers albums are actually adored by the artists’ fanbase, often to the point that they’re preferred to some of their original works.
It’s at this artistic precipice that we find Los Lobos on their new album Native Sons, a collection of songs about, or by artists from Los Angeles, the bands’ spiritual (and actual) home, meaning that 43 years after their debut album was released, we find the band back where they began. As if they ever truly left.
Helpfully, the songs selected aren’t exactly by household names, and even those written by famous artists aren’t their most obvious or immediate tunes (Sail On, Sailor by The Beach Boys is far and away the most well-known track, but there are also selections from Jackson Browne and Buffalo Springfield).
David Hidalgo, a star-power session musician as well as the head honcho in Los Lobos, leads his band of merry men through their regular mixture of soul, rock, Mexican folk, Latin and R&B, often mixing a new blend on each tune. The band open the album with Love Special Delivery, which they burn through at a blistering pace with an old school rockabilly swing. Then they switch into a sultry, careworn R&B sound on Misery – written by Don Juan Mancha – before shifting again into fiery folk rock for a take on Buffalo Springfield’s Bluebird, which they seamlessly merge with For What It’s Worth.
There’s blues (Percy Mayfield’s Never No More), more rockabilly (The Blasters’ Flat Top Joint) and that set covers by more well-known artists (as well as a great track by War). As usual, there are so many styles and so many ideas crammed into the album that you’d forget you weren’t listening to an album of originals.
Native Sons is a surprisingly great piece of work by a band who know how to please their fans and accidentally make new ones. These guys have been around the block so many times now that they’re part of the furniture in the most cultured record collections – whether you know they’re there or not (check the credits of your favourite Tom Waits albums). Native Sons is just a lovely album that pays homage to the band’s hometown. Highly recommended.