Thursday, September 8, 2011

Telling Us What He Thinks: Ry Cooder, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (Nonesuch Records, 2011)

Ry Cooder has been described as a modern Ulysses, on an odyssey though the music of his native America, and then through the rest of the world. From his earliest recorded works as a session guitarist in the late '60s (playing on records by Paul Revere & the Raiders and Pat Boone), through a series of world music experiments (with Africa’s Ali Farka Toure, Hawaii’s Gabby Pahinui and Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club), and a decade scoring films for directors Walter Hill and Wim Wenders, he has introduced slide guitar and blues mandolin to generations of listeners. In 2005, he returned to the marketplace as bandleader with Chavez Ravine, the beginning of his California Trilogy. This series continued with My Name is Buddy (2007) and I, Flathead (2008). Each release saw him expand his vision with bigger productions not just musically but in packaging. Chavez Ravine included a fat booklet with historic photos of the LA neighbourhood; Buddy came in a hardcover book with illustrations (by Vincent Valdez) and brief narrative pieces (written by Cooder) linking the songs; I, Flathead was packaged in a large format hardcover book with a novella telling the story of Kash Buk and the Klowns. The songs on all three albums were composed by Cooder. This, too, was a change of direction.

On earlier albums, Cooder had relied on existing songs from the American roots songbook, and adapting them into his own style. Now he is writing the lyrics himself, and composing music that is heavily influenced by everything he had been listening to over the years. This method is used on his new release Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down. The packaging has been scaled down, just a digipack and a 20 page booklet with lyrics and some illustrations (a few historic photos, a drawing or two from Vincent Valdez, and a dark photo of Cooder reading the newspaper). The newspaper photo is the key to the whole album. Pull Up Some Dust... is an invitation to a conversation about what has been going on in the world, as viewed through the liberal sensibilities of Cooder.

The lead track was influenced by a headline Cooder read on Truthdig Radio.
No banker, no banker, no banker could I find
They were all down at the station no banker left behind.

On the track, Cooder plays guitar, mandola, banjo and bass; drums are provided by his son Joachim, but the effect is not unlike a Woody Guthrie interpretation from one of Cooder's '70s albums. Rootsy, bluesy, with his world-weary vocals declaiming an obvious truth. This approach continues throughout the album, and is fleshed out on various tracks with the addition of guest musicians. Perhaps the biggest surprise is on the second track, “El Corrido de Jesse James”, features Flaco Jimenez and a Mexican brass band. Cooder explains, “the words would come to me in ¾ time, that meant corrido, that means accordion; banda horns because they’re exciting.” The music becomes part of the story, “More and more I’m convinced that you don’t want to over-think it. You just want to express it, almost like you’re sitting in dancehall, or somewhere, and people are playing together. That means you sing live. It sounds real.”

“Quick Sand” was originally released (in a different version) as an iTunes download in response to Arizona law SB 1070, and to raise funds for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Here it is taken slower, just Ry and Joachim again.

“Dirty Chateau” includes vocals by Juliette Commagere and a quartet of violinists. “Humpty Dumpty World” reintroduces Terry Evans, Willie Green and Arnold McCuller, a soulful trio of singers who toured with Cooder in the 70s. It also adds a disappointed God looking down on...

The work of His mighty hand
Saying if this world should end it wouldn't hinder me
As I contemplate the works of man.

Cooder's music is as smooth as ever, but his lyrics sometimes seem forced and ragged. Certainly his heart is in them, but it sometimes feels like he is trying to wedge the words into the structure of the song. As much as one might admire his politics, he is not the lyricist that Elvis Costello is. Still you have to give him credit for his storytelling ability.

“Christmas Time This Year” deals movingly with soldiers returning from overseas, in various physical and mental conditions. “Baby Joined the Army” continues that theme. Cooder stated in a recent interview that these days demand a different kind of protest song and that “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” is yesterday's news. His tough approach is highlighted throughout this album.

He suggests one answer...John Lee Hooker For President
Now I want nine fine lookin women sittin on the supreme court
Their big legs their tight skirts drive me out of my mind...
All you backbiters and syndicators, hear what I say.
I ain't gonna stand for no trash talkin and double dealin...
Wouldn't that be a change!

Ry Cooder and band performing live
There are another five or six tracks I haven't mentioned. Each one deals with a current event you will have heard about on the news, or should have. Cooder's desire is that we be aware of what is happening. That we respond to it any way we can. He has responded in music, and in lyrics that (while not particularly poetic) tells us exactly what he thinks. This is a fine rocking roots album that harkens back to the folkies of old. Woody Guthrie's spirit is all over the 14 tracks. When Ry Cooder appeared live in San Francisco to introduce the album I heard only good reports from friends who attended. It's too bad it requires him to get angry to make music like this. But if it keeps this kind of politically aware songwriting in style ... I'm all for it.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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