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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

THAT LUCKY OLD SUN

Brian Wilson

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It took Brian Wilson nearly four decades to complete his 2004 tour de force "Smile," and now he's back just four years later with another career-defining record. An inventory of his life and career, this solo album could have easily descended into nostalgia, if not for its unflinching self-examination and musical arrangements -- dappled harmonies, sweeping orchestration, blue-eyed soul -- that don't just recall but build on past glories.

A mash note to his beloved Southern California, "That Lucky Old Sun" is organized around spoken monologues and snippets of the Tin Pan Alley standard that supplies the record with its title. The songs are mostly upbeat, but interspersed among paeans to surf, sand and beautiful women are nods to the not-so-sunny likes of homeless people and mental illness, including Wilson's own much-publicized dark night of the soul.

Co-producer Scott Bennett and "Smile" confederate Van Dyke Parks wrote all of the album's lyrics, inhabiting Wilson's ups and downs with empathy and understatement. Gratitude-steeped admissions like "I cried a million tears/I wasted a lot of years/Life was so dead" lend gravitas, for example, to the baroque-pop reveries of "Oxygen to the Brain."

Parks and Bennett's writing at times lapses into cliche, such on the stereotypical "Mexican Girl." The music, though, is the real story here, as the wistful lyricism of "Midnight's Another Day" so gorgeously attests. Unabashedly craggy, the 66-year-old Wilson's vocals consistently earn the uplift that buoys the album's 17 tracks, especially when imparting hard-won insights like "Lost in the dark, no shades of gray/Until I found midnight's another day."

-- Bill Friskics-Warren

DOWNLOAD THESE:"Oxygen to the Brain," "Midnight's Another Day," "That Lucky Old Sun"

SHAKE AWAY

Lila Downs

Lila Downs has always been so sure of herself, it was actually off-putting at first. But with "Shake Away," there is no doubt that she has earned her supreme confidence and reinvigorated the place in Mexican music where popular and traditional sounds collide. Probably best known for singing "Burn It Blue," the Oscar-nominated song from the "Frida" soundtrack, she is the product of a Mexican mom and an American dad, perfectly fluent in Spanish and English, and comfortable enough to pun and play in each language.

But more importantly, she's just as fluent in a countryish tune such as "Minimum Wage" as she is on the cumbia-like "Nothing but the Truth" and the eerie cover of Santana's "Black Magic Woman" (rendered bilingually). All of these are from the new album, on which Downs continues her remarkable exploration of the musical pollination on and across the U.S.-Mexican border. When her voice slithers from one end of the scale to the other, we are honestly awed.

Surprises abound: a Spanish version of Lucinda Williams's "I Envy the Wind," a sublime take on Paul Buchanan's folk tune "I Would Never," and the playful, bouncy wordplay of "Taco de Palabras." There are a slew of cameos here, too, including Enrique Bunbury, Mercedes Sosa, La Mari (the best of the lot) and Cafe Tacuba's Ruben Albarran. But they're all irrelevant. The important thing is Downs, getting better and better -- and probably nowhere near the peak of her powers yet.

-- Achy Obejas

DOWNLOAD THESE:"Taco de Palabras," "Minimum Wage," "Yo Envidio el Viento"


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