by Andrew Casillas
Lila Downs might be the most underrated Latin musician of this young century. Since 2000’s Tree of Life (Yuyu Tata) she has evolved album-by-album-by-album, gaining confidence and fine-tuning her command over various pop styles. This culminated in the borderline-masterful 2008 album Shake Away, one of the highest-rated records from the early days of Club Fonograma (that review features a reference to MySpace, no less!).
So anticipation was high that the follow-up, Pecados y Milagros, would continue this ace winning streak. However, anyone with hopes that this would serve as Downs’ masterpiece will be left disappointed. Pecados y Milagros is as nuanced and eclectic as any of her previous albums, but leaves her trademark sense of vibrancy at the door. Not that the record lacks quality tunes. The opening 1-2 punch of “Mezcalito” and “Tu Cárcel” definitely fit into the peak Lila Downs oeuvre. The former is a punchy Mexican romp (as evidenced by the title), while the latter is the sort of tender ballad someone like Downs could do in her sleep. Goddamn is it captivating.
But from there the album never really clicks. Downs continues the global music sample sale she came close to defining in Shake Away, but the resulting pastiches don’t capture the spirit of the original genres or their interpreter. Something like “Zapata se Queda,” her tribute to Celso Piña-style cumbia (which includes a cameo from the man himself) doesn’t get off the ground after the first 10 seconds, languishing in the middle of the road. Her '80s pop kick, “Solamente un Día,” suffers from schizophrenic production (either play up the electric drums or the bachata rhythms, but not both), even though Downs turns in a pretty solid vocal.
Indeed, Downs herself is still on her game. She gives 100% to every song, but the songs just don’t give back. Her vigor alone saves many of the tracks and helps shine substantial light on the record’s other solid songs, such as the shimmying “Palomo del Comalito” and the passionate “Cruz de Olvido.” Perhaps a letdown was inevitable after sustaining such previous highs. And it’s not a crime for a musician to make a record that’s not as good as their previous record (unless you’re The Strokes). Besides, Pecados y Milagros isn’t a BAD record—but it’s definitely underwhelming. The problem is, underwhelming isn’t a word you would have ever thought of ascribing to a talent as vivid as Lila Downs.