Singer and songwriter Gaby Moreno has been a critic's darling since her self-produced debut offering Still the Unknown was released in 2008. Thankfully, the Guatemala-born artist didn't get stuck in that particular prison. She's toured the globe, collaborated with Van Dyke Parks, Hugh Laurie, and countryman Ricardo Arjona, won a Latin Grammy as Best New Artist, has sung on several hit singles in the Latin market, co-composed the theme song for the TV show Parks & Recreation, and delivered the title theme for the Disney-animated film Elena of Avalor. Ilusión, produced by Gabriel Roth, is her fifth, and a nearly perfect showcase for her impossible-to-pigeonhole talents as a songwriter and as a singer.
While she has publicly classified her own music as "Spanglish folk soul" it seems merely a label to placate the press. She probably doesn't think about it. Moreno is equally versed in classic blues and jazz, sophisticated pop, country, and various Anglo and Latin American folk styles. Opener and first single "Se Apagó" (reprised in English as the bookend "Love Is Gone" with guest Nashville R&B singer Jonny P) is modern retro-soul through a lens that had Stax gazing at Motown. Her throaty delivery digs right into the bone of her lyric to expose its naked emotion. Contrast it to "Nobody to Love," a cut-time jazz-blues waltz that reveals the influence of Mamie Smith, with swirling B-3 and reverbed guitars. "Pale Blue Lights," with its upright piano and cut-time drum shuffle, is a bluesy, late-night saloon song while "Maledicion Benedicion" is a hot, country two-step delivered in Spanish with cracking snares and wrangling electric guitars. "Fronteras" ("Borders") is a ranchera disguised as a countrified folk song; it, and the glorious ¾ time, string-laden vintage (à la the '60s) Latin pop anthem to love that is "Si Pudiera" ("If I Could") were originally written in French and translated into Spanish by Arjona. "Estaré" offers a Muscle Shoals-esque upright piano and B-3 wedding Southern soul to early rock & roll and gospel. Moreno's contralto soars over the top as the rhythm section builds an unshakeable base underneath. The title track, with its simple mariachi guitar line, weaves a humorous, surrealist lyric into an early 20th century swing-blues melody. Ilusión is Moreno's best offering to date and its colorful array of styles are anything but what its title proclaims. It is a magnificent illustration of her fully developed skills as one of the more sophisticated singer/songwriters in our midst.