Los Lobos' Long, Troubled Dream : **** LOS LOBOS; "Kiko" Slash/Warner Bros.

Strong, versatile, intelligent and heartfelt, Los Lobos long has held a secure place on the roots-rock honor roll, but "Kiko" is the band's masterpiece--a startling leap forward in sonic reach and depth of vision.

In such albums as "By the Light of the Moon" and "The Neighborhood," Los Lobos described earthly trials, then separately invoked an answering faith.

"Kiko" is a long, troubled dream of an album that holds the temporal and the spiritual in a single gaze: It shows us a suffering humanity an angel's breath removed from an overarching realm of spirits, magic and hallucination.

Crafting 16 songs that are alternately luminous, mysterious and laden with anguish and doom, Los Lobos evokes both the comforting closeness of that spirit realm, and the infinite gulf of separation from it that leaves us to stew in human sorrows.

To express all that, the band has incorporated, along with its customary wide range of sources, a new set of New Orleans and Afro-Caribbean rhythms ideally tuned to great mysteries.

Mitchell Froom's production is masterful and daring; David Hidalgo's singing is as staunch in its dignity as it is tender in its sadness.

The band barely permits itself the release it has found before in spirited rockers, boisterous blues and high-kicking anthems. But when wonder and pain are being contemplated as deeply and fixedly as Los Lobos does here, who wants to be released?

New albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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