La Cantina (Narada 09463-34248-2-1, 2006)
Where her last two releases combined the confessional intimacy of Mexican folkloric music with global seasonings, Lila Downs‘ latest finds her sticking considerably closer to the possibilities of her half-Mexican heritage. The dominant ranchera stylings of La Cantina are bathed in a contemporary digital sheen, but their rustic underpinnings remain. And anyone who’s heard Downs sing knows she’s got the pipes to make this sort of thing work. Her voice is a most remarkable instrument, injecting every song she sings with a startling emotional range from tough as granite to delicate as mist.
The tracks on La Cantina are pretty much evenly split between swaying ballads and stomping dance songs, geared not only toward Downs‘ full-bodied singing but also the inventive arrangements concocted by Downs and her main musical collaborator Paul Cohen.
Plentiful acoustic guitar and accordion (some of the latter played by the great Flaco Jimenez) lead into techno-splashed breaks, rumbling beats and passages where the vocals are framed by background sounds suggestive of time and place (i.e. the cantina of the title). Of course, no over-reliance on gimmicks is needed, as Downs proves on passionately unadorned songs like “La Noche de Mi Mal.” But when a modern day adventurousness is applied, such as on the percolating “La Cumbia del Mole” and songs that combine foundational instruments (harp, brass, etc.) with Downs’ visionary outlook, this disc becomes a truly absorbing masterpiece.