RY COODER FOR PRESIDENT! Ry Cooder

On his latest album, the Americana maestro mines for
socio-political gold and strikes the motherlode.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

Long before Buena Vista Social Club and A
Meeting By the River
, and before all the soundtracks and his acclaimed trio
of California LPs, Ry Cooder, the son of folklorists, canvassed the American
songbook for populist nuggets to include on his early albums.

 

From his 1970 self-titled debut
through 1976’s Chicken Skin Music,
Cooder swam upstream against rock’s most pretentious, musically overblown era
by recording newly arranged yet faithful cover songs by Sleepy John Estes, Leadbelly,
Woody Guthrie, Lorenzo Barcelata and an Alan Lomax-like number of traditionals.
This wasn’t part of any alt-country movement or movie-inspired Americana
revival, either. It was an ingrained Great Depression/Dust Bowl-era vibe that populated
Cooder’s early work, though the aesthetic has always been there whether he was exploring
Cuban son or Indian ragas.

 

So it’s no surprise that the
current economic crisis – and the attendant media shift to placate the far
Right and oft-illogical platforms — has stoked Cooder’s pro-working man anger
and sharpened his pen to the point where the new Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (Nonesuch/Perro Verde) ranks not
only among his very best releases, but among the best socio-political albums
ever made.

 

Cooder explored this territory
before with 2007’s My Name Is Buddy. But
that record was a re-telling of the Great Depression and its aftermath through
anthropomorphic characters that stood in for everyone from Guthrie to J. Edgar
Hoover, Emma Goldman and Paul Robeson. The conceit, while largely successful,
occasionally imposed itself on the songwriting; the record also listed toward acoustic
folk, leaving less room for Cooder’s stronger suits: rock, Tex-Mex corridos,
and blues.

 

Cooder’s political bent is obvious
on Buddy, but the history lessons
were meant to reverberate into the Bush era and thus indict it implicitly.  The songs on Pull Up Some Dust, on the other hand, brook no such literary distance
– “take this war and shove it up your Crawford, Texas ass,” Cooder sings on the accordion-powered waltz
“Christmastime This Year,” pillorying the hypocritical Neocon hawks for the Walter Reed
Hospital scandal.

 

By making things explicit (though
never preachy or black and white), these politically loaded songs read more
relevant and biting; they also feel more varied and right in Cooder’s songwriting
wheelhouse. His blistering slide-guitar feels like an appendage of his anger on
the Mephistopheles-as-Right-winger character study “I Want My Crown,” and it washboards
the gospel boogie of “Lord Tell Me Why,” a wonderfully ironic send-up of white
man-fear that features black back-up singers lamenting “why a white man/Ain’t
worth nothin’ in this world no more.” 
Maybe most remarkable is “John Lee Hooker for President,” which finds Cooder
channeling the blues legend – guitar and voice – on a visit to the White House.

 

That track can’t help but point to
the black man currently living there, of course, and the disappointment many of
us supporters feel as the slow pace of change. But what most impresses
throughout the record is this ability to meld the stickiest current events and
their nuance into these familiar genres without ever sacrificing song-craft or
sounding stale. Lead-off track “No Banker Left Behind” – a jaunty,
mandolin-driven Civil War march – is a scathing indictment of Wall Street greed
and government collusion that makes it an instant working man’s classic like
Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi” or Blind Allen Reed’s 1929 “How Can a Poor Man Stand
Such Times and Live?” (Cooder covered both in his 70s heyday).

 

With Flaco Jimenez’s incomparable accordion
alongside a banda horn-breakdown, “El Corrido de Jesse James” doesn’t make a
Robin Hood figure of the notorious outlaw, but points out that when bankers
“line their pockets well,” Jesse’ll be seeing them in hell. “Quicksand” points out the economic
similarities between immigrants, Coyotes, and Arizona’s vigilantes – is a soul-rocker in
the mode of Cooder’s Bop Til You Drop-era,
though the production is less slick and better suits the rest of this record. Another
highlight is the graceful migrant farmer-love ballad “Dirty Chateau,” which is
made even more luminous by countrypolitan strings, Juliette Commagere’s shadow
harmonies, and the Cooder equivalent of Lovers Rock guitar curlicues.

 

It’s not all vitriol and
finger-wagging, either. Cooder believes in the essential dignity of the working
man, and ends the record in a quietly upbeat manner. He mixes in some of his
vaunted Hawaiian slack-key playing during the pro-family waltz/homily
“Dreamer,” and on what could be an old school country classic, “Simple
Tools,”  contrasts the home-wrecking speculator
who “makes his living on the telephone” with the “common ordinary workaday
fool” who mends his broken heart through old fashioned hard work.

 

In the end, Cooder is really
pointing to the chasm between those for whom market ideology justifies the
worst in human behavior and those who, in their imperfect way, want to also nurture
the better angels of our nature by sacrificing for the less fortunate. “Take in
mind the credo of a jackass prospector/take what you need but leave the rest
alone,” he sings on the elegant, pro-environment album-closer “No Hard Feelings,”
while some of the most gorgeous guitar fills he’s ever put to tape drift down like
falling leaves. This simple advice for harmonious living courses through the
record from the first moment to the last. That Cooder has written it into songs
that rival the best in his remarkable four-decade catalog speaks both to his
ageless skill and the timeless justice of this cause.

 

 

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