The simple fact, not stated nearly often enough, is that Los Lobos are one of America's truly great rock & roll bands, and they've been making consistently strong albums since 1984's How Will the Wolf Survive? But 1992's Kiko raised the stakes for Los Lobos' work in the studio with its edgy atmosphere, ambitious production, and expressionistic, purposefully off-kilter textures; it took their music in new and unexpected places with confidence and fire, but they seemed a bit unsure of where they should go down the new trail they blazed. Released in 1996, Colossal Head found them replicating Kiko's sonics without approaching its emotional power, while their subsequent recordings found them retreating into the safety of their status as America's finest roots rock band, which is hardly a bad or unsatisfying place to be. But The Town and the City is the first album where Los Lobos have allowed themselves the same degree of freedom and room to play with their signature sound as they had on Kiko, and the result is a quietly exhilarating experience. The Town and the City is a simpler and more measured set than one might expect from Los Lobos, with a lower quotient of full-on rock, but the band's performances are as tight and sinewy as ever; David Hidalgo offers yet another master class in virtuoso guitar playing (without strutting his ego or boring the listener in the process), and Cesar Rosas remains his perfect instrumental foil. The rhythm section gives the songs a firm backbone and adds welcome color and heft to the music, and the production (by the band, with Tchad Blake and Robert Carranza mixing) makes the most of the interplay between the musicians -- this is music that revels in the spaces as much as the notes, and demonstrates that this is truly a great band rather than just five gifted players. The 13 songs on The Town and the City work within a loose conceptual framework as they ponder the Mexican-American experience both among illegals and folks who were born and raised in the U.S.A., and while Los Lobos are too smart and too talented to sink into melodrama, there's a sense of wonder in the opening tune, "The Valley," and an air of measured dread in the finale, "The Town," which leaves room for a great deal that's both joyous and tragic in the lives of their characters. The Town and the City isn't likely to be the soundtrack for your next party, but it's an exciting and emotionally powerful experience that grows with each listen, and it's hard to think of many bands who, after three decades together, are as willing to challenge both themselves and their audience as Los Lobos do on this album.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming