Clever Disguise

Feb 3, 1999 at 4:00 am
Los Lobos have been so good as a band, for so long, that the individual personalities involved have been lost to our sight. David Hidalgo has received some deserved recognition, but that has as much to do with his appearances on dozens of outside recordings as it does with the specific skills he brings to his band of more than 20 years. I know their names -- Hidalgo, Louie Perez, Conrad Lozano, Steve Berlin, Cesar Rosas -- and the instruments they play, but it is the group I have long admired.

Now comes the first solo record by a member of Los Lobos. Cesar Rosas is the left-handed guitar player with the soul patch who stands between the much larger Hidalgo and the nearly invisible Lozano when Los Lobos play onstage. He has, by my count, contributed exactly 13 original songs on the seven albums the band has released since 1983, making the appearance of Soul Disguise (Rykodisc), which includes 10 new songs and two covers, something of a surprise.

"It's been brewing for a long time," Rosas says in a phone interview. "I was gonna put it out about three-and-a-half years ago. I sat around with Lenny Waronker, who was head of Warner Bros. Records back then. He's gone to DreamWorks now. We were gonna do it. I had several meetings with him about it, and he said, 'Let's go with it.' Then I went out on the road, and maybe two weeks later, people told me, 'Hey, guess what -- Lenny Waronker doesn't work there anymore.' There were a lot of reasons, record-company reasons, why I didn't do it. Finally I got a record deal with a company that I thought would be cool for this type of stuff."

The new album comes out amid a flurry of activity in the Los Lobos camp. Rosas and Hidalgo participated in the Tex-Cal-Mex all-star album Los Super Seven, released last summer on RCA. Hidalgo and Perez are set to release their third record by the Latin Playboys, a side project that also includes producer Mitchell Froom. And Los Lobos will have a new album of its own out in May, on a new label, Hollywood Records. "Some of these songs were meant for Los Lobos a few years back and they never made it on them, for whatever reason," Rosas says. "I was looking for material, and I found a cassette here, a cassette there -- you know, demos. I said, 'Hey, maybe I can do something with these.'"

He has. Soul Disguise is a collection of tough, powerful songs in a variety of roots styles. He handles blues, soul, rock & roll, rock & pop, Mex-Cal and rhythm & blues, and he does so with the facility of a true fan who happens to be a terrific musician. Look back at the songs Rosas did contribute to Los Lobos -- "Don't Worry Baby," "Shakin' Shakin' Shakes," "Wicked Rain" -- and you'll get a glimmer of the idea. Maybe Rosas' pieces don't stretch as widely as Hidalgo's and Perez's more intricate and experimental songs, but he knows how to mine a groove and connect it to a hook.

"I started looking at songs, and I did have to weed out some," Rosas says. "I've recorded another album's worth of material that's not as rootsy-sounding. It's slightly more contemporary. I had to actually go back and decide that I couldn't put these contemporary songs with the others. It just doesn't seem like they belong together."

The album starts with "Little Heaven," a song as contemporary as Rosas gets. Though bluesy in tone, it is structured like an adult rock/pop song, with the kind of hook John Hiatt would be proud to write. Rosas examines mixed feelings about a lost relationship, using the sprightly bounce of the rhythm track and a particularly exuberant guitar solo to come down on the pleasant side of bittersweet.

He contrasts this immediately with the take-no-prisoners attitude of Ike Turner's obscure R&B gem "You've Got to Lose." "I've loved that song for many, many years," Rosas explains. "I always wanted to do it with the band, and somehow we've never gotten around to it. It's a cool song. That riff is just amazing to me, the way it all works, that little guitar lick that goes through the whole song. It's so hypnotic. I like songs like that." Borrowing Turner's classic lick, then overdubbing variations of and responses to it, Rosas creates a masterpiece of tense, soulful aggression. On other songs, he draws inspiration from both the Texas guitar romps of ZZ Top and the piano stylings of Professor Longhair.

Rosas recruited several friends from Los Angeles to play on the record. "One difference from Los Lobos," he explains, "is I worked on it all by my lonesome. I did it here in my studio, and I kind of took my time on it. I played a lot of the instruments on it. Not just because I was trying to show off my talents -- believe me, I wish I had more players. A lot of the time, I would have friends over for something else and ask them if they would play on one of my songs."

Rosas sings, plays all the guitar parts and turns out to be a pretty good bass player. "I never really played bass," he says. "That's the way it started. I would do these songs and I would say, 'Oh, darn, I need a bass on that.' I would track the songs with just me and a drummer. They needed a bass. I wondered what it would sound like with a bass. So I just got a bass, and I started playing it, and, to my surprise, when I'd play songs for a few people, they'd say, 'What's wrong with that?' So, I got encouraged by friends."

Necessity often being the mother of invention, the result is a feel not generally found on such roots recordings, one in which the groove has a bounce and drive that come, I think, from a guitarist's mind rather than that of a person brought up to be in a rhythm section. Rosas has played with Lozano long enough to know how to stay out of the frontline's way, but he takes the bass parts in subtly different directions on several songs.

Soul Disguise also benefits from the presence of the great accordionist Flaco Jiminez on two Mexican-styled numbers, one of which, the bouncy "Angelito," Rosas wrote himself. Jiminez's work is, as always, a joy to experience; the accordionist's contortions of the expected melodic counterpoint are as thrilling as any of Rosas's rough-toned guitar solos. What's more, they don't just wait for a break in the middle of the song; Jiminez goes all over the place from the beginning and doesn't stop until he reaches the last note. Though I eagerly await the new Los Lobos album, Soul Disguise is a vast improvement on the last one. Colossal Head suffered from too much of the Froom-produced weirdness that Hidalgo and Perez have really bought into since the Latin Playboys began. Rosas stays grounded with music that excites the body and entices the mind. "Records like this are good," he said. "With so much other stuff going on, people tend to forget about the R&B and roots. It's a fun thing to do, and it makes for a swell ... " Rosas laughs mischievously, "birthday present.