La Llorona is a figure from Aztec mythology who is known to lure men with Siren songs, then turn them to stone as punishment for their evil ways. While Lhasa de Sela's delivery is not quite that powerful, this stunning debut album did win her the 1998 Juno Award as Best World Music artist. For good reason. Tags applied to Lhasa, like the oft-repeated "chanteuse" don't really capture her moody, ethereal voice. While comparisons to the likes of Edith Piaf are inevitable, they describe neither the texture of her vocals, the poetic sweep of her lyrics, nor the music she and collaborator Yves Desrosiers created for the album.
The songs on La Llorona are all in Spanish, which adds to the veil of mystery that is woven into every song, as Lhasa mines the rhythms and melodies of Latin folklore, poetry in the Andalusian tradition of Federico Garcia-Lorca, European gypsy and klezmer music, and norteño canciones along with more conventional French (and French-Canadian) café styles.
The opening cut, the smoky, desolate "De Cara la Pared (Face to the Wall)" makes the most of Desrosiers' musical saw and the violin of Mara Tremblay as Lhasa delivers a haiku-like plea of lost love. (In fact, all of de Sela's lyrics could stand alone on the printed page with the kind of poetic effect usually attributed to the likes of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and few others.) "La Celestina" moves to the rhythm of a campfire dance and the more prominent cry of the musical saw in addressing a wandering soul. "Desierto ("The Desert)" and "El Payande" are laments, romantically hypnotic. Almost too much so; de Sela verges here on a wallow. She pulls back from the brink with "Por Eso Me Quedo (That's Why I'm Staying)" and "Los Peces (The Fish)," two of the albums best cuts. The first is a sweet melodrama over a melody that flows like a minor-key norteño folk song. "Los Peces" is a folk song of Mexican origin, but de Sela makes it her own, turning a ballad about the Virgin Mary and the fish in the sea into a dervish dance. "Floricanto" (or "Flower Song") is a dreamy lament with hurdy-gurdy echoes. "Desdenosa (Disdainful)" is a whispery, dramatic, flamenco-tinged confessional, while both "Pajaro (The Bird)" and "Mi Vanidad (My Vanity)" are rolling-sea ruminations with gypsy accordion and klezmer clarinet.
The final selection, El Arbol de Olvido (The Tree of Forgetfulness), a somber dreamscape from Argentina, brings the album full circle, ending as it began, looking through a glass darkly.
The whole of La Llorona has a intensely mythic feel, rising and falling dramatic and exotic breaths -- an invitation to darker mysteries, like the Siren songs of the album's namesake.