This record is spooky, in a laid-back, mostly engaging sort of way. Interwoven with subdued, distorted and eclectic instrumentation led by David Hidalgo is the uniquely deep and dirty bass voice of bluesman Mike Halby. Hidalgo and Halby have recently emerged from Halby's L.A. home studio as a duo dubbed Houndog. Featuring spare but funky percussion, Houndog offers nine tracks articulating themes of despair in an eerily effective synthesis of word and sound.

A side project for Los Lobos member Hidalgo, this disc explores his stylistic inclination toward subtle and slow-paced fusions. It is a work almost opposite the solo effort of fellow Lobo, Cesar Rosas, whose recent CD package reads, "Made Loud to Play Loud." Hidalgo's production, instead, is understated, rarely aspiring to rock out. But it gives its weird take on the blues anyway. Except for the shuffle, "Down Time," the songs are rendered in a leisurely tempo, leaving lots of space for the minimal instrumentation to dwell on a riff, and for Halby to vocalize like a warm-toned upright bass.

On "No Chance," from the opening strains of Hidalgo's violin to Halby's anguished declaration of the title line, the interplay is fascinating. As a shimmeringly hypnotic electric-guitar lick softly repeats a groove with the drums, the violin and voice trade passages, accented occasionally by acoustic slide guitar. The lyrics here, as elsewhere, vent male torment over female fickleness or infidelity. But Halby's palpable rage is enhanced by restraint. As he poignantly wails lines such as "Good God, girl, can you be nice?" something menacing, echoed by an ominous violin response, lurks below ground.

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Similarly, on "I Brought the Rain," Hidalgo uses a fuzz-toned electric guitar as counterpoint to Halby's dusky intonations, communicating a powerful recognition of self-fallibility. "I'll Change My Style" is a soulful plea featuring double-voicing by Halby and high-pitched violin solos, unleashing flurries of notes that sound like a crying man promising everything if his woman will take him back.

On the relatively uptempo "Down Time" and the dismally forlorn "Somebody (Stop the Bleedin')," the vocals are mixed so low the singer seems trapped underground, a deliberately muddy effect that truly resonates.

A similarly despairing tone haunts "Lonely Dying Love," but it gently rocks as the violin, soft and low in the background, weaves a sinuous riff like an incantation.

"Eddie's Gone" is the only purely instrumental track, a languid minor-key blues number in which the violin moans and screeches a free-form song of despair, trilling its heartsickness over a foundation of muted guitar arpeggios and subtle organ chords. In contrast, drums dominate "All Fired Up, All Shook Down," which locks on to a tribal polyrhythmic effect to cast a spell that builds in threatening intensity.

But it's the closer, "Killin' Me," that best epitomizes raw grief transformed into music. While an organ softly alternates between two chords and as drums pound, Halby groans as if he's in physical pain, going down slow. It's a hurting mediation on betrayal, the futility of substance abuse and thoughts of suicide -- truly primal blues. Near the end, as cymbals crash furiously, Halby repeatedly shouts, "It's killin' me, oh, yeah." And this listener can't help but believe.

-- Roger Wood

Cesar Rosas
Soul Disguise
Rykodisc Records

The lead wolf of Los Lobos steps away from the pack on his debut solo release to deliver a thoroughly delightful and skilled collection of roots-rock tracks, which also have a touch of New Orleans R&B, blues, soul, Tejano and even psychedelia. But despite this seemingly disparate collection of genres, one of the greatest strengths of Soul Disguise is its seamless ambience when played from beginning to end. It's all lean meat, a testament to the prodigious skill of an often underrated guitarist, singer and songwriter.

The leadoff track, "Little Heaven," is a catchy, buoyant romp that's definitely cruising-with-the-top-down (or, hell, just window-open-all-the-way) music. That air of joyful infectiousness also permeates such songs as "You've Got to Lose," the '50s strut "Tough to Handle" and the fabulous "Racing the Moon." Rosas's "Struck" should be a minor classic among the hit-by-the-lightning-bolt-of-love tunes, and the title track is a fine piece (with tasty guitar work) that reminds us why ZZ Top was so great in the first place.

Rosas's crystal-clear vocals handle the purty stuff purty well, too, as in the fragile but optimistic "Better Way" and the shimmering "E. Los Ballad No. 13." There's also a nod to traditional Latino music with two Spanish numbers that feature the accordion work of the peerless Flaco Jimenez. And all the songs are filled with some great melodic hooks that will make you want to hear them more than once.

The big surprise on Soul Disguise: Rosas sticks firmly to the ground for a break from the more experimental work of Los Lobos. Think of this record as a great summer tome delivered early, but, in this case, there's nothing wrong with an early Christmas.

-- Bob Ruggiero

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