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Lila Downs

Our critics' picks in new releases

Lila Downs has the sort of eyes found on an old photograph and a voice haunted by ghosts. Between her Oaxacan Indian mother and American anthropologist father, Downs grew up knowing both sides of the border--the one that divides cultures as well as the haves from the have-nots. In her powerful voice there are echoes of ranchera, folk, blues, and, at times, something more ancient. Music seems to be her tool for communicating with the spirits of the Mesoamerican, African, and European ancestors that ground our American cultures. Downs' distinctive voice, combined with Mexican folk instruments like the harpa, along with electric bass, saxophone, and the occasional slide guitar, is a strong, often intense cocktail. Fluent in Spanish, English, Mayan and other indigenous tongues of her mother's native Mexico, Downs mixes it up language-wise, too.

As the bilingual title suggests, the album is political, but not at the expense of artistry. Like a necklace of fine beads, it's impossible to single out every song worthy of note. "Corazoncito Tirano," an old Mexican ranchera, is sung with heartwrenching simplicity as a deep country blues. "Pastures of Plenty/This Land is Your Land/Land" is a knockout Woody Guthrie medley (with lyrical additions by Downs) that speaks profound and bitter truths about the migrant experience. "El Bracero Fracasado" is a humorous, beer barrel norteña about a failed border-crossing attempt. Downs' signature tune, "La Llorona," is included, and she works fresh magic into a bilingual version of the Latin chestnut, "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas" ("Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps").

With her strongest album to date, Downs definitely deserves to be more widely known, and likely will be--she's slated for a cameo in the upcoming Salma Hayek film about Frida Kahlo (for whom, ironically, Downs is the dead ringer, rather than the sexy Hayek). She is also scheduled to play N.C. State's Stewart Theatre in Raleigh on March 23, so there's plenty of time to fall in love with the album before falling in love with her in person.

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