A Woman of Substance

Lila Downs -  Shake Away
Lila Downs – Shake Away
Lila Downs

Shake Away (Manhattan Records/EMI, 2008)

It’s clear from the opening track of Shake Away that Lila Downs is no shy, polite songbird. This CD is proof indeed this is a woman of substance. It’s also clear that if she stood in front of you looking like she does in a photo on the CD, festooned with flowers, that you’d lay right down and let her walk all over you. And you’d like it.

Following up on her 2006 release of La Cantina and her stunning show at the Academy Awards for her phenomenal work on Salma Hayek’s movie Frida, Lila Downs, along with husband and fellow producer Paul Cohen, have whipped up a batch of tightly drawn songs on Shake Away that positively pulsates with Ms. Down’s vibrancy and incendiary vocals. Shake Away is burnished with the bright colors of Ms. Down’s Mexican heritage, but faceted with flashes of Afro-Cuban, blues, Southwest country twang and even a bit of klezmer sound, building up a truly eclectic, innovative sound and robbing the listener of any resistance to its lure.

Opening with “Little Man,” Downs and Cohen cleverly cull a festive sound, polishing the piece with raucous flashes of brass and sassy guitar licks. Casting her delightful spell, Downs shares vocals with La Mari on “Ojo De Culebra,” rap lyrics with Enrique Bunbury on the fiery “Justica” and with Raul Midón on a mercurial version of Peter Green’s “Black Magic Woman.” The socially conscious “Minimum Wage” pays tribute to the country’s migrant workers with a twanging Southwest blues sound that really works. “Los Pollos” with Gilberto Gutierrez and “Perro Negro” with Ruben Albarran offer Ms. Downs an opportunity for playful vocal exchanges that ring of delight.

The listener gets a little respite from the driving force of the kick-ass band La Misteriosa, but slower tracks like “Yo Envidio El Viento,” “I Would Never” and bonus track “I Envy the Wind” by Lucinda Williams do offer an eddying, soulful sweetness created by Ms. Downs’s extraordinary vocals. And it is Ms. Downs’s vocals that are the center of Shake Away from which all the passion and energy of each track spins outward in perfect orbits. Her throaty vocals run like a live wire through tracks like “Skeleton,” “Taco De Lengua” and a duet with Mercedes Sosa called “Tierra De Luz.”

Rounding out her sound is the band La Misteriosa that includes Paul Cohen on tenor sax and clarinet; Celso Duarte on harp, violin, guitarra, jarana, Leona jarocha, vihuela y charango, kenacho y zampoña, Rob Curto on accordion; Booker King on bass; Juancho Herrera on acoustic and electric guitars; Yayo Serka on drums and Samuel Torres on percussion. Guest musicians include Brian Lynch, Ken Basman, Anat Cohen, Clark Gaton and Angelito Chacon.

Shake Away possesses an undeniable freshness that cuts a swath through to a new Mexican-American soundscape. Potent, edgy and sumptuously crafted, Shake Away will have Lila Downs walking all over you.

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