The Wolf Four-Pack

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Maybe if one of them had looked like Ricky Martin, Los Lobos would have gotten the recognition they deserved. As it is, they are probably best known for their No. 1 hit remake of Richie Valens' "La Bamba," but those who bother to look a little deeper will find one of the most versatile and accomplished ensembles in American contemporary music, whose work is chronicled (and beautifully packaged) in yet another of Rhino's scrupulously crafted compilations. "El Cancionero Mas Y Mas" is a four-CD retrospective that starts in 1977 and takes us to the present, and what becomes immediately evident is that there is virtually nothing about American music that these five hombres aren't intimately familiar with.

Like NRBQ and the Grateful Dead, whose encyclopedic catalogs provide the only fair comparison, Los Lobos have absorbed everything from rockabilly to Marvin Gaye (whose "What's Going On" ends the album), with field trips through psychedelia, doo-wop, blues, pop and just-plain-out-there studio experimentation. And that's not even counting their mastery of the traditional Mexican music they grew up with, the soundtrack of life in Chicano East L.A. With 86 songs, there's a lot to like here: the earliest forays into the studio with traditional material like "Guantanamera"; the rowdy guitar-driven rock 'n' roll that fits them like a favorite leather jacket; the thoughtful, melodic writing of "Will the Wolf Survive" and "One Time One Night," with which they hit their stride; the inevitable "La Bamba," complete with its traditional acoustic coda that reels it back to the real roots without being pedantic about it; the increasingly adventurous and atmospheric production and songwriting in the albums "Kiko" and "Colossal Head."

But even those who think they are familiar with the band may be surprised to be reminded what a great ballad singer Cesar Rosas can be; or what a formidable array of guitar players they have on hand, especially David Hidalgo; or how many bases they manage to successfully cover — literally: in addition to the traditional material, their cover versions include songs by Richard Thompson, Johnny Thunders, the Beatles, the Grateful Dead and Doc Pomus, but Los Lobos manage to make them all sound like they're hatched from the same egg. Their outside projects have furthered these diverse interests, be it the traditionally oriented Los Super Seven or the more esoteric Latin Playboys. This eclecticism probably won't earn them any more No. 1 hits, and some of the extracurricular efforts featured on discs 3 and 4 represent a certain dilution of their talents, but those are the signs of a group of musicians whose curiosity is still pushing them to explore new possibilities. Most bands are lucky to master one sound; Los Lobos have transcended that limitation by mastering the synthesis of styles that has always been the driving force of American music.