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Los Lobos

On their latest album, Los Lobos do that thing they do best: weaving intense, character-based narratives--often peppered with surrealistic or magical-realistic touches--through thick and intoxicating grooves built on blues, Tex-Mex, cumbia, old-school funk or vintage rock 'n' roll. The Town and the City is a welcome blessing after the ill-focused and guest-heavy mess that was the band's last studio recording, 2004's The Ride.

From the opening ode to life among the salt of the earth ("The Valley") through a meditation on the existential futility of the working class ("Hold On") to a bittersweet soul tribute to a crumbling hometown (the eloquent closer "The Town"), Los Lobos tell musical tales that paint pictures of places that feel as if they are straight out of The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row or East of Eden. Talk about your literary allusions: The album's title even mirrors that of a Jack Kerouac novel.

The Lobos also indulge judiciously in their trademark moody blend of eccentric rock, Latin rhythms and cool guitar noisescapes, most notably on the slow shuffle of "The Valley" and the raucous, off-kilter dance tune "The City." On the stunning "No Puedo Mas," the band whips up a smoky, sultry and completely infectious Santana-meets-reggae mood.

Then there's "The Road to Gila Bend," which seems to borrow a bit from the Tucson desert-rock sound, but that's appropriate since it focuses on a protagonist's journey across the U.S.-Mexico border. Like Steinbeck's stories of the American dustbowl, it also posits that many immigrants did not want to leave their homes but were forced to do so to survive.

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