Song of the Week: “Anselma” and Troubadors

Let me explain:

Throughout the course of the holiday season–as mine and other families across America take part in the time-worn tradition of pretending to be familiar with those you see once every time Haley’s Comet passes–I had some spare time for rumination, mulling over in my head all of the different topics I could write about had I just the will power, a scarce resource in the winter months.

Around my second helping of lukewarm Christmas salmon (“Leviticus would approve!“), I was struck by the sudden realization that I was teetering over the chasm that countless well-meaning, ill-starred men and women fall victim to with every New Year: the Resolution’s Paradox, by which the oath of a person’s dedication to a novel, life-altering task becomes, in fact, less probable to ever become a reality due to said person’s natural inclination to never carry out the task, basking in the satisfaction of having at least thought of doing so.

In a word, holidays suck, and as a personal remedy to shake off their stuffy uncomfortable sweaters, I have resolved to put forth a weekly entry where I speak to the value, uniqueness, or relevance [or all three (or more)] of a specific piece of music that has been clogging my iPod play history recently.  These tracks–be they songs, field recordings, radio soundbites, or whatever–won’t necessarily be of the immediate moment, or even contemporary (whatever that means); I suppose you could say that, like everything else on this blog, it’s meant more as an ongoing commentary on my journey through the wonderful and vibrant century of recorded music, sharing the neat little treasures that either fall into my hands or that I trip and fall over face-first.

There is, after all, too much to listen to. If Questlove’s buggin’ out every time a band gets booked on Fallon, “[going] to Metacritic to read their reviews… [going] to Rdio or Spotify and listen to their albums,” then maybe we can all afford to take a second look. In doing so I hope to offer a lens for how to view these relics of music history, itself so varied and multifaceted, and writing itself into infinity.

So here’s my personal Song of the Week. Not exactly original, I know, but neither is Kanye.

Kanye West Thelonious Monk Fashion Meme Song of the Week

Kanyelonious

First up is “Anselma,” an ongoing favorite from childhood from the old warhorses of East LA–and my personal favorite boy band–Los Lobos:

Los Lobos Black and White Song of the Week Anselma

There’s Davie, the leading man; and Stevie,  he’s the bad boy; and Louie, squeaky clean; and Conrad (look at that smile!); and–who could forget?–Cesar!

As the closer to the first side of the band’s landmark 1983 EP, … And a Time to Dance–produced by none other than one of the gatekeepers of taste in American roots music, T-Bone Burnett; and Steve Berlin, who would metamorph into the band’s one-man horn section by year’s end–”Anselma” could almost be said to be a kind of stylistic summation, not just functionally, but symbolically as well.

The group itself sprouted, like so many great musical ventures, in the garage of high-school-age David Hidalgo with his buddy Louie Pérez in 1973, a pair of ambitious youngsters who bonded over their mutual love of Fairport Convention, Ry Cooder, and Creedence against the already-rich backdrop of the Chicano rock that was East LA County’s cultural imprint, as embodied by Ritchie Valens:

The only known footage of Valens performing on that music show of shows: American Bandstand.

Very soon, their other friends Cesar Rosas and Conrad Lozano became regular attendees, and from these informal jam sessions–the “Krypton days,” as Louie refers to them–nonetheless, formed the band’s first incarnation as Los Lobos Del Este.

Los Lobos Young Song of the Week Anselma

Here’s then what should have happened: they should have played a few bar gigs, with or without realizing that they weren’t very good. They should have gotten the wise idea to use their college savings to buy a van and tour the state (maybe two). They should have written a song that their designated fanboy friend told them “sounded like a hit.” It should have been a hit. They should have made an album. That should have been a hit. They should made bank on said hits. Their egos should have been diagnosed with gigantism. The second album should have had delays announced on a conveyor belt. The drummer should have quit. The lead singer should have gone solo. The others should have become session musicians. Years later, they should have gotten an honorable backhanded compliment from Patton Oswalt on a VH1 retrospective.

Here’s what actually did happen, according to Lozano:

A lot of people forget that though we were rock musicians when we got out of high school, we started out as an acoustic outfit. We wanted to play Mexican folk music because those were our roots… We started paying attention to our traditions and culture, and focused on those styles of music for… ten years until we decided to play rock again by bringing in drums and electric bass.

Huh, that was unexpected…

And when Lozano said ten years, he wasn’t kidding. In the midst of their group expedition to the roots of their own culture’s music, a kind of self-autopsy, the band managed to self-release an album, Del Este de Los Angeles (Just Another From East L.A.), in 1978, comprised entirely of songs inhabiting the many norteño subcategories and, of course, sung in Spanish.

Los Lobos Del Este de Los Angeles

Radio silence, however, right up until 1983, as the band was undergoing its own kind of Beatles-style incubation by becoming–really through trial, error, and time–into the early 80’s best wedding band you’ve never heard of.

Los Lobos Wedding Band Song of the Week Anselma

Anyway, here’s “Wonderwall.”

“Anselma” is one of the many fruits of that torturous labor, a demonstration in miniature of all that these proud Chicanos had cultivated. How appropriate then, in a way, to have it mark the end of the EP’s first side, the peak of something old before moving onto something new. (For Los Lobos, that “new” was actually, in their history, older; as side two announces its fancy-free, rock-around-the-clock agenda with a rollicking rendition of Valens’ classic, “Come On, Let’s Go,” the band affirms its renewed embrace of rock ‘n’ roll.)

And yet, “Anselma” doesn’t really draw attention to itself. In the spirit of paradox , however, I would posit that the song betrays its greatness because of how ordinary it seems–such that you could almost miss it.

David Byrne Meme Song of the Week Anselma

Its quality is born in relatively quotidian musical details: a clear drum pattern, simple chords, a pretty little melody that’s brave enough to repeat itself. The song can’t hide behind any fuss, any glamour, or innovation. It’s just that ordinary, and it’s just that good.

To my ears, the most instrumental component to the song’s success is how oriented the rhythm section sounds right out of the gate. It doesn’t get much more spare than this: nothing but a snare drum on the 2 and 4 (courtesy of Pérez before the band played musical chairs with the drum throne in the early nineties onwards), and the guitar along with it for the ride as it chops away at the I-IV-V progression with sharp, staccato chords. The bass complements them with clear, expected downbeats (1 and 3), with little exception apart from the occasional walking line.

What, then, makes this rhythm section so special? It all comes down to their synchronicity. In addressing the topic of playing well in time, you’ll inevitably hear musicians–regardless of instrument–employ the idea of “the pocket,” that there’s a certain way of dividing the rhythm of a song in one’s playing that gives the music a kind of unique momentum that can’t be accomplished through a mathematical approach. Too often, musicians become too preoccupied with keeping their tempos in a literal sense, making every bar sound precisely the same. Given that, it’s all too easy to dismiss the idea that playing in the pocket has as much to with breathing as standing still. There has to be a relaxation to playing a groove, and each note has to have its own moment, its own breath.

Neither is the pocket a set formula; finding it has entirely to do with people who are playing with each other, as they make compromises in their respective playing to find where it lies for them. Los Lobos are bona-fide masters at this because they sound as if they even breath together. Listen to the bass and drums, and you can hear how both propel each other–speeding up and slowing down, yes, but as a unit–without stepping on each other’s toes.

In short, Cesar, Conrad, and Louie have got the time on lockdown, setting an especially secure foundation for the at-once gorgeous and tragic melody from David’s accordion, the hook out of left field that you’ll hum quietly in your more pensive moments. All of these are the marks of what make Los Lobos an exceptional band to dance to. Regardless of what they’re playing (pick any record), the beat is never in doubt: present, clear, solid. Those three essential qualities make up the minimum requirements for a piece of music to be “danceable;” all you really need are two beats that repeat ad inifinitum. Los Lobos have that in spades, an undersung quality that is not given so much as it is earned.

It’s their ability to communicate real emotional content in their vehicles, however, that put them over the edge. Given that for many, … And a Time to Dance was their first exposure to Los Lobos and the musical world they came from, it’s easy to infer that not many of their new gringo norteño fanatical converts could necessarily understand what they were singing about.

Los Lobos And a Time to Dance Song of the Week Anselma

Going by the accordion melody, most plausibly concluded that it was something touching about unrequited love. And they’re actually not quite far off, but there’s still much more to it. Written by Cesar Suedan and Guadalupe Trigo, the lyrics tell of something much more sinister:

When you marry him, I’ll be at the wedding,
When they ask I will oppose it at once,
And if the judge asks why exactly,
I will say it is because you are my love.
And if your fiancé loses his temper,
I’ll pull out my gun and shoot.
After all I’m not afraid of death,
And I’ll go to jail because I’m the authority.

Oh, Anselma, Anselma, Anselma,
Little one of my sufferings,
Either let me visit you,
Or I will send you to the gallows.

And if you refuse to marry me,
I’ll take away the ranch and property of your father,
I’ll tax them and even burn their house,
Because I’m the authority for a reason.

I’m in charge and run this town.
I’m telling you this if you’re thinking of escaping:
My uncle Elijio runs the next town over,
All I have to do is tell him and he’ll catch you.

Oh, Anselma, Anselma, Anselma,
Little one of my sufferings,
Either let me visit you,
Or I will send you to the gallows.

Mother of God Rage Song of the Week Anselma

Yeah, not exactly a song with tidy sentiments (so much for the boy band theory). But therein lies another dimension of the song’s higher art.

I can’t help but think of Tom Waits with a song like this, especially when he remarks, “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.” Behold, “Anselma” in a nutshell, but this isn’t a new concept either.

How often in history has a beautiful aesthetic been used to communicate something truly terrifying? That qualifier takes with it all of the Grimm and Hoffman fairy tales to start, followed shortly by a big chunk of Beethoven’s oeuvre, the Book of Revelations, and Looney Toons. This aesthetic contrast–and the cognitive dissonance it creates–is a stem cell for the sublime, and the enduring quality of so much great folk song; the weight of which you can hear in the lamenting accordion, seeming to dance in spite of itself, and Rosas truly moaning as calls out the name of the poor young girl who suffers at his hand, but will take it.

It’s this element of the performance of “Anselma” that reveals Los Lobos to be more than just a good dance band, and lays the groundwork for them to become the artists with something real to say that they would later confirm themselves to be the following year with their epochal LP, How Will the Wolf Survive? Sure, neither they nor their music achieve an iconic status in the manner of a Bowie or a Bono. Nor has either of those things changed that much, and it’s clear that after thirty years, they’re not going to.

Los Lobos Color Song of the Week Anselma

Where have I seen this before?

Yet still, Los Lobos remain essential to the topography of American music, in a way that may be even more important than Ye, for all of his genius… or whatever. They are for East LA and Chicano rock what the Radiators (may they rest in peace) are for New Orleans and swamp rock: a troubadour band, one of the precious few whose output remains a fixed point, a statement of the preservation of a specific musical history and tradition. In wonderful tracks like “Anselma,” which make the strange familiar  and the old relevant, we’re given an invaluable education. All the better that we can dance to it.

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