Lila Downs, "Balas y Chocolate" (Sony Music)
Fluency in Spanish isn't necessary to understand Lila Downs' shape-shifting voice: It transcends language, carrying pure emotion.
On her latest album, "Balas y Chocolate" (Bullets and Chocolate), the Grammy-winning Downs expresses outrage and pain over events in Mexico, her birthplace. And she capably blends traditional Latin rhythms with modern elements in an array of popular standards and her own compositions, her themes -- treason, loss, death and love -- woven throughout the 13 songs.
Downs' romantic bolero "Cuando Me Tocas" (When You Touch Me) is rendered achingly beautiful and accented by wavering breaths. "Mano Negra" (Black Hand) demonstrates her range of style in a terrific mash-up of pre-Colombian instruments and mariachi horns with rhythm and harmonics borrowed from Jewish klezmer. The gorgeous production allows Downs' voice to soar solo to the edges of falsetto and contralto or dive into a blend of audio samples.
Downs moves from operatic stylings to rap and everything in between, with both artistic exploration and pop sensibility, such as on the first-release single "La Patria Madrina" (Motherland) in which she pairs up with Colombian rocker Juanes.
She sings: "You are the country of all of my dreams/He who doesn't respect, I'll split his heart in two."
More politically charged than her previous collections, the album's lyrics are as much a lament as a call to action.