Although operating within differing musical temperaments, Gov't Mule and Los Lobos have maintained devout jam-band and Americana followings over the years. But their new albums, which embrace styles that define their ensemble sound while cautiously expanding on them, enforce the fact that both bands are best enjoyed when tags and demographic concerns are ignored.
Gov't Mule's By a Thread starts, quite unexpectedly, with a sweaty Southern blues groove ripe with a thick, almost oppressive bass riff and chant-like percussion that makes the tune less like the design of group chieftain Warren Haynes and more like early-'70s ZZ Top. Later, Scenes From a Troubled Mind offers the same sweaty sentiments by way of guitar hooks born from the blues but filtered through the learned ranks of early-'70s British boogie merchants (Savoy Brown and Exile on Main St.-era Rolling Stones come to mind). And how about the chiming Haynes guitar lick that bounces around Railroad Boy? It sounds for all the world like the darker '70s twilight of The Byrds.
Everything Mule-a-holics have come to love about the band — the beefy but unhurried jams, Haynes' blues-fortified guitar work, and story lines that find (or at least search for) the sun behind solid skies of grey — are everywhere on By a Thread. But the treats come when Haynes, drummer Matt Abts and company shuffle the deck with the churchy, acoustic-rooted reflection Gordon James. Beautifully accented by the bowed bass of the newest Mule, Jorgen Carlsson, the tune is both fortifying and faithful. In short, if Gov't Mule is hanging onto this world by thread, it remains a rock-solid one.
The title to Los Lobos Goes Disney sums up the fun you're in for. The record is as giddy and celebratory as By a Thread is gritty and dark.
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The veteran East Los Angeles band is new neither to Disney songs (it covered The Jungle Book's I Wan'na Be Like You for Hal Willner's neo-nightmarish Stay Awake in 1989) or children's music (1995's Mexican folk-savvy Papa's Dream). Los Lobos Goes Disney simply swings open the doors and invites everyone to the festivities, from the album-opening, warp-speed reading of Snow White's Heigh-Ho, which sounds like 1971-era Santana in full Latin-rock fury, to the closing instrumental, a surf-style medley of When You Wish Upon a Star and It's a Small World, in which Los Lobos closely approximates Los Straitjackets.
There are some sentimental surprises, too, including David Hidalgo's quiet and moving version of Randy Newman's I Will Go Sailing No More (from Toy Story). But when Cesar Rosas lets loose Cruella De Vil as a blues rhumba, Los Lobos Goes Disney goes deliciously into party mode.