Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Whoa, where did this come from?  Ry Cooder's always been different, and a bit of a curmudgeon, but he just got topical, political and ass-kicking.  He's mad about a few things, and he's pointing fingers directly at who he feels should shoulder the blame:  bankers and politicians.  Sure, these are easy targets, but Cooder's done his homework, and over an hour proceeds to tell us what's up.

The reason this comes as a surprise is because for the past three albums, he's been dealing with these issues and others in a less-direct way.  A trilogy of California-based albums used characters and story-telling to look at 20th century social history and problems.  But having singing cats standing in for Woody Guthrie (My Name Is Buddy) or exploring racism through 1950's Mexicali tales (Chavez Ravine) was a bit too obscure, and not that grabbing.  Narrative is a hard thing to pull off, and so are concept albums.  This time, we get it, plan and simple.  This is protest music, using classic protest music, with vitriol and humour, us against the fat cats.

Lead song No Banker Left Behind mocks the whining cry-babies of the financial world, lining up in Washington for their handouts when the housing crisis hit.  They are whisked away on a special train from all their troubles, served shrimp cocktails and champagne to sooth the pain.  Of course, they did get the last laugh with all their bonuses, but Cooder takes care of that in the next track, El Corrido de Jesse James.  Here he visits the notorious bank robber in heaven, where he tells his cronies that despite all the terrible deeds in his past, "I never turned a family from their home."  He wishes he could get his old gun back and visit Wall Street, where "I'll cut you down to size my banking brothers/Put that bonus money back where it belongs."  Of course, Cooder isn't advocating the murder of bankers, or not quite anyway.  But he does have James tell them "You lined your pockets well/But I'll see you all in hell."

The most shocking song on the disc is Christmas Time This Year, which has all the joyous sounds of the season, but watch those words.  The kids are coming home for the holidays, but they're coming from Afghanistan:  "Our children will be coming home in plastic bags I fear/Then we'll know it's Christmas time this year."  Blame?  This time, he doesn't want us to forget who was in charge when that started:  "Take this war, and shove it up your Crawford, Texas ass." 

There are lighter moments in all this anger.  John Lee Hooker For President sees Cooder imitating the late, famous bluesman, perfectly.  The voice is right, the guitar is right, and the logic is right on.  Cooder, as Hooker, tells us his idea is "every man and woman gets one scotch, one bourbon and one beer, three times a day if they stay cool.  Little chillens gets milk, cream and alcohol, two times a day if they stay in school.  Now boogie chillen."  Oh, the ideas from John Lee's logic keep comin', including nine fine lookin' womens on the Supreme Court, if he catches back-biters and syndicators messin' 'round the White House, he might cut 'em or shoot 'em.  "If you vote for John Lee Hooker, you know you gonna groove."

I got bored quickly by Cooder's last three albums, even though the music was, as usual, top-notch, with excellent Mexican, blues and roots sounds.  But the stories were just too complicated to follow, it was more reading than listening.  As it turns out, those discs were important precursors to this effort, as Cooder worked on his political themes, and started to connect the dots over the past decades, where the misuse of money and power continues to be the great problem for those without it.

No comments:

Post a Comment