Listening Booth: Ry Cooder, “The UFO Has Landed”

Written by Listening Booth, Music

Ry Cooder – The UFO Has Landed (2008)
purchase this album (Amazon)

It’s a hundred degrees in the shade, easy, and you’ve been hiding from the worst of the heat in this tiny bordertown cantina for most of the afternoon. Full of cervezas, you ask the bartender where the bathroom is; he laughs at you and gestures toward the alley out back. Stumbling outside, you steady yourself against the wall with one hand while doing your business, and as you close your eyes, enjoying the sweet release, you catch a few distant, gentle strains of the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard. It’s only when you’ve finished and zipped up, intent on finding the source of the magical sound, that you notice the stranger. He’s slumped against the wall, maybe ten feet away, draped in a poncho, with a bottle-shaped brown paper bag for company.

“Hey,” you say, shuffling unsteadily over to him. “Where’s that music coming from?”

He’s on his feet before you know it, grabbing you by your shirt collar and slamming you against the alley. His fedora is jammed so low you can barely make out his eyes, and he’s either smiling or grimacing at you — you can’t tell which. He smells like the worm in an empty bottle of tequila.

“You want music?” he growls. “I’ve got some music for you…”

And that’s what Ry Cooder’s albums are like — a forced march from the alley behind Pedro’s Cantina to the Dust Bowl and back again. As a young recording artist, he was blinding in his restlessness; but unlike many eclectic artists, who come across as showy dilettantes, Cooder gives you the impression that he’s bouncing around like this not because he wants to show you how much he knows, or because he wants to expose you to as much as possible, but because he makes no distinction between these genres. It isn’t that simple, naturally; an ardent musicologist, Cooder is simply incredibly adept at drawing lines between, to give just one example, Hawaiian and American folk music. So adept, in fact, that you can’t even hear the lines — only a walking musical encyclopedia could make it through these records and really understand what Cooder’s doing the whole time. But it doesn’t matter; that’s the beauty of it. Unlike, say, Paul Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints, the intended effect isn’t to transport the music (or the listener) to some exotic locale. As far as Cooder’s concerned, what’s important is not the difference between sounds, but the area where they come together. With the two-disc, 34-track The UFO Is Landed, Rhino gives casual listeners their first (somewhat) comprehensive gateway into his solo catalog.

Cooder’s son Joachim compiled this set, and he opted for the hopscotch approach, jumbling later tracks up against earlier ones — which makes perfect sense, given how freely Cooder has moved between musical disciplines during his career. Disc One starts off with his cover of Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm” (download) and segues directly into the instrumental oldie-but-goodie “Available Space” (download), and even though the two tracks are separated by almost 20 years, they fit comfortably together. This is as much a testament to Bernie Grundman’s remastering as it is to the underlying consistency of Cooder’s eclectic work, but you get the point — this isn’t a chronological set, but it might as well be.

Of course, anyone who tries to take 40 years of an artist’s career and boil them down to a pair of CDs will have to make some hard decisions, and the hardcore fans who are drawn into purchasing The UFO Has Landed to hear “Let’s Work Together,” a previously unreleased track recorded with Buckwheat Zydeco, will no doubt find fault with some omissions. (1978’s terrific Jazz, for instance, isn’t represented at all.) Still, only a fool would expect a compilation this size to cover all the bases, and unlike most retrospectives, UFO actually fills a void in the marketplace; Warners’ American arm has never seen fit to anthologize Cooder’s non-soundtrack work, and this draws relatively evenly from across the spectrum, offering new listeners a thoroughly entertaining introductory course for a decent price.