The “breakthrough” album is something most critically acclaimed artists have to contend with. It’s the pressure to get to that elusive “next level.” Sometimes the pressure comes from outside sources, such as the record label or management. Other times it’s self-induced. It’s the desire to grow out of the confines of one’s fan base in order to seek a larger audience. Perhaps the move is purely artistic, to grow into a new sound or a new image, damn the loyalists and critics!
Lila Downs’ latest release, Shake Away, is just that. It is an attempt to go beyond the confines of a cult following. It is her chance to shed her past image as the token Mexican Diva and perhaps become a household Diva. Out of the sixteen songs on the album, more than half are in English, which should make her songs more accessible to a non-Spanish speaking audience.
That should make songs such as "Little Man," a Mexican Banda song (the style of which usually has most Americanos groaning) made easily digestible with English lyrics and a guitar solo. It is an “every person” song of the working immigrant, just trying to get by like everyone else. But the problem with the songs is that it lacks the spice, the flavor, and the balls for one to care about the immigrant that does the jobs that no one wants to do. The same problem exists within "Minimum Wage," a song about the trials and tribulations of immigrants in the U.S. by way of Loretta Lynn. It’s a down home country vibe that’s awkward at best, with the message getting lost on the train to Nashville. These two songs feel like Lila is both trying too hard and trying too much. Another sign of that is her version of "Black Magic Woman," a duet with pop singer Raul Mídon. Upon first listen I could almost hear the music executives saying:
“Lila, you’re a great singer, but you have do a song that everyone knows in order to get people to first listen to you. How about that everyone knows, like "Black Magic Woman?" Perhaps you can do a duet with a pop singer? Look how well it worked for Carlos Santana on Supernatural!”
The songs ends up sounding like a bad Vegas revue: the pop singer with no swing and the Diva with too much voice for such an overused song. It sounds like Yma Sumac paired with Rob Thomas. It’s a K.C. Porter (Producer of Santana’ Supernatural) wet dream come true.
There are some great duets on this album with singers that can give Lila a run for her money. The duets with Mercedes Sosa, Gilberto Gutierrez of Mano Blanco & Café Tacvba’s Rubén Isaac Albarrán circumvent her New York band of musicologists’ tendency to over think the musical arrangements. One of the best things about tradition Mexican music is not just the technique but soul of it, which this band seems to forget at times. Nevertheless, it is a monster line-up of musicians that play on her album, including Rob Curto, Celso Duarte, Brian Lynch and Lila’s co-collaborator, Paul Cohen, all great musicians on their own right.
The album contains two versions of Lucinda Williams’ "I Envy The Wind," one version in English and one in Spanish. Lila’s version is less country and more in the vein of a Tom Waits ballad. This cover, unlike "Black Magic Woman," sounds sincere, perhaps coming from Lila’s desire to cover a song she loves instead of one that will propel her into mainstream success. Shake Away’s problem is not that Lila is trying to do something different, but that it feels like she is trying to appeal to the masses. Much like our Presidential candidates, Lila is trying to get that swing vote, convincing the Starbucks set to buy her CD along with their Vanilla Lattes. With that goes her message of justice for exploited people, for her album speaks to no one. The message is not powerful enough to either influence the exploited nor to inspire the sympathetic. Lila Downs' voice in itself can move mountains but Shake Away won't inspire most to listen to this album more than a couple of times.