Shake Away, Lila Downs

SHAKE AWAY Lila Downs, Mexico/USA

by: Carlos Reyes

Lila Downs sings the traditional music of Southern Mexico, the other half of music culture that doesn’t identify itself with Mexico’s northern popular music (Norteño, Banda… etc). The 2002 film Frida (Julie Taylor) launched the internationalization of one of our most visionary individuals in music today. Shake Away is her fifth studio album and it is the most diverse record from the Mexican-American vocalist that reaches that exciting but risky move from folk to alternative music. Her last production La Cantina has to be one of the best ranchero albums ever made and it gave us a glimpse to what was coming. Shake Away magnetically unrolls folk, rap, rancheras and huapangos in its multilayered premise with Downs’ gifted voice.

Lila was raised in the state of Oaxaca, a tourists’ favorite destination because it is a state prominent of indigenous municipalities. A region that refuses to loose its culture and has too many times been remarked as an alienated community that isn’t evolving. Lila Downs continued her education at north, always carrying her indigenous roots as a valuable personal choice. It must come as no surprise that her new album explores those American roots that clearly influence her music but had not been fully exposed on previous works. Shake Away features a number of interesting covers, but the standout track is Lucinda Williams’ supreme “I Envy the Wind”, one of my all-time favorite songs.

Shake Away is also Lila’s most political album yet; subjects such as immigration and minimum wage are handled with a sense of logic that may be also perceived as humoristic satire. “Perro Negro” features Ruben Albarran (Café Tacvba’s vocalist), it is a delicious attack towards corrupt leaders proclaiming honesty from them as it shouts “I want the truth.” The best track in the album features another rock legend: Enrique Bunbury (Heroes del Silencio). “Justicia” is a sublime heart trenching anthem about justice; a word that has lost itself in between political chaos. The song assembles in its introduction a traditional andino verse, some rap lines and finally exploding into Bunbury’s rock territory. The chorus retrieves a failed search for justice, but still confesses their optimism for things to get better, even personificating justice through “la conciencia te llama” (conscious is calling you).

First single “Ojo de Culebra” features La Mari from Chambao, another traditional act that made a jump from flamenco to alternative pop with their last album. The song takes a realistic approach to the negativity around us and it gives it a way out: to stir it off just like snakes get rid of their old skin. Instrumentals are especially sharp with a standout work from harpist Celso Huerta who adds power to the awaited encounter of Lila Downs and Mercedes Sosa. It was to be expected, “Tierra de Luz” becomes eventful with this two ladies shining in the middle of heartbreaking lyrics about redemption and loss. A song that throws its listeners back to earth, reminding us of our miniature and momentary presence here regardless of religious beliefs.

Mexico and Iberoamerica will be getting an album titled Ojo de Culebra, but we are not sure how different they’ll be from one another. I must confess I’m not a big fan of albums presenting songs with several language versions, especially because of what gets lost in translation. The centerpiece of Shake Away is such a round, complete album that it should have cut some of the refill tracks such as “Silent Thunder” and “Nothing but the Truth” out, just like the snake. Several publishers have proclaimed it as her most complete work yet, I’m not completely sold on that, but I would say this is her most personal album yet, a truly emotional journey, in fact one of the true essentials of the year.

Shake Away is currently available in its entirely for streaming at Lila Downs MySpace. First single "Ojo de Culebra" is available for free download to MySpace members.

Numeric Rating:

Key Tracks: "Justicia", "Los Pollos" and "Tierra de Luz"