Dorothy Parker once wrote that Katharine Hepburn ran the "gamut of emotions from A to B." Well, it's not as if Lhasa de Sela can't sing, but she conveys a range of emotions that goes from A to A-and-a-half. The Mexican-American musician first introduced us to her husky alto on her 1997 Spanish-language release, La Llorona. Her sophomore disc is even more worldly: The Living Road contains performances in Spanish, French and English. Unfortunately, the linguistic legerdemain doesn't work, and the blame rests solely on Lhasa's vocal limitations.
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The worst of the four lousy English-language tracks on The Living Road is "Small Song," a wince-inducing, ersatz blues debacle that would sound perfectly at home in a karaoke bar. Lhasa fares better in Spanish: On "Pa' Llegar a Tu Lado," her mournful phrasing feels genuine, evoking a sad Cesaria Evora. Her mannered delivery works best on the three French tunes, especially "J'Arrive à la Ville," a dirgelike bundle of vibes, strings and faint echoes of Nick Cave and Tom Waits. Between its creepy circus arrangement and Lhasa's hypnotically detached crooning, the song generates some tension and gut feeling, qualities sorely lacking on most of this underwhelming effort.