'Playboys': A Twist on Los Lobos : *** 1/2 LATIN PLAYBOYS, "Latin Playboys"; Slash/Warner Bros.

On 1992's remarkable "Kiko," Los Lobos employed a vast array of sonic surprises to give its songs a magic realism twist. This side project teaming Lobos' David Hidalgo and Louie Perez with keyboardist Mitchell Froom and guitarist Tchad Blake--the producer and engineer of "Kiko"--is all twist. Yet it too is quite magical.

If short on actual songs, the album is full of bracing sonic vignettes, with a variety of instruments and found sounds used to paint pictures of street celebrations or Mexican villages or Chinese landscapes.

Even when the numbers take more traditional song structure, Perez's lyrics are almost haiku-like in their spare imagery, and Hidalgo's soulfully serene vocals are as effective as on Los Lobos' more concrete material.

The lack of the celebratory, rootsy foundation separates this from full Los Lobos projects. But seen as a one-off project, it makes a fine complement to the band's catalogue--a chance to examine more closely one of the band's multiple facets. And seen as a continuation of "Kiko," it represents ambition and growth on par with that shown by U2 in its '90s albums. Stunning.

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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