Iâ€™ve been working up to a Ry Cooder Idiotâ€™s Guide for awhile now. Heâ€™s one of my longtime, all-time favorites, but heâ€™s released so many albums in so many different styles and genres that just thinking about trying to tackle them all at 5:30 on a Tuesday morning usually makes my head hurt. So weâ€™re going to do things a little differently today. Rather than taking an in-depth look at each of Cooderâ€™s albums â€” which would take forever and bore you to tears â€” Iâ€™ve separated his work into a few broad categories.
A little background information first: Ry Cooder is, simply put, one hell of a musician. Heâ€™s primarily known as a guitarist, but thatâ€™s a little like saying that Superman is known for wearing a cape â€” put a stringed instrument in front of him, and heâ€™ll be able to play it, and usually play it well enough to make you cry. He initially made his bones as a studio musician, but by 1970 (at the tender age of 22), heâ€™d started his solo careerâ€¦
Part One: Young & Hungry (1970-1978)
Itâ€™s a hundred degrees in the shade, easy, and youâ€™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 youâ€™ve ever heard. Itâ€™s only when youâ€™ve finished and zipped up, intent on finding the source of the magical sound, that you notice the stranger. Heâ€™s slumped against the wall, maybe ten feet away, draped in a poncho, with a bottle-shaped brown paper bag for company.
â€œHey,â€ you say, shuffling unsteadily over to him. â€œWhereâ€™s that music coming from?â€
Heâ€™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 heâ€™s either smiling or grimacing at you â€” you canâ€™t tell which. He smells like the worm in an empty bottle of tequila.
â€œYou want music?â€ he growls. â€œIâ€™ve got some music for youâ€¦â€
And thatâ€™s what these first six Cooder albums are like â€” a forced musical journey, from the alley behind Pedroâ€™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 heâ€™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 isnâ€™t that simple, naturally; an ardent musicologist, Cooder is simply incredibly adept at drawing lines between, say, Hawaiian and American folk music. So adept, in fact, that you canâ€™t even hear the lines â€” only a walking musical encyclopedia could make it through these records and really understand what Cooderâ€™s doing the whole time. But it doesnâ€™t matter; thatâ€™s the beauty of it. Unlike, say, Paul Simonâ€™s Rhythm of the Saints, the intended effect isnâ€™t to transport the music (or the listener) to some exotic locale. As far as Cooderâ€™s concerned, whatâ€™s important is not the difference between sounds, but the area where they come together.
On his first album alone, Cooder records songs by Randy Newman, Woody Guthrie, and Leadbelly (just to name three); in lesser hands, this could easily be obnoxiously showy. But he lives so deeply inside this music that you could listen to Ry Cooder from start to finish without realizing he didnâ€™t write every song himself. Itâ€™s really a phenomenal debut, and he held that high note for an awfully long time. Into the Purple Valley, Boomerâ€™s Story, Paradise and Lunch, and Chicken Skin Music all follow the same template, essentially (though I feel Iâ€™m doing them all a disservice by lumping them all together in this way): A few Cooder originals, an amazing grab bag of covers, and some fine, fine playing.
1978â€™s Jazz is the sore thumb of this period. As Cooderâ€™s first unified â€œconceptâ€ album, itâ€™s neither as eclectic nor as immediately accessible as its predecessors; nor is it as overtly commercial as its immediate successors, which is why itâ€™s in this group. Cooder, if you hadnâ€™t guessed, isnâ€™t talking about Jazz in the bowdlerized Kenny G sense, or even in the Miles Davis sense of the word â€” this album reaches further back, into the catalogs of artists like Jelly Roll Morton. One imagines the musicians wearing straw hats and garters on their arms when recording these songs. As a whole, itâ€™s perhaps not as satisfying as Cooderâ€™s other work from the period, but if another artist has compiled a smarter, more affectionate tribute to this crucial period in American musical history, Iâ€™m not aware of it.
Part Two: Into the Mainstream (1979-1987)
The middle act, critics will often tell you, is always the best. Itâ€™s where the conflict is. They usually back this up by pointing to Act Two in any decent play, or to a handful of movies â€” Empire Strikes Back, Godfather II, etc. But as often as not, middles are mushy and a little uninspired â€” they get neither the time spent on the first act nor the skill acquired by the third. Peter and Jan, for instance, were the middle and worst Bradys.
And so it is with Cooderâ€™s middle period. These albums arenâ€™t bad, necessarily, they just seem to catch him between wanting to dive full-on into genre explorations and needing to sell records. Bop Till You Drop is nominally an R&B record, Borderline is more or less Tex-Mex, and The Slide Area and Get Rhythm are good old rock & roll, but theyâ€™re all kind of half-baked, and plagued by â€™80s production and engineering. Bop, in particular, is a thin, horrible-sounding record; once you find out that it was the first major-label digital recording, you can really understand why people have been so freaked out about losing the warmth of analog all these years.
Studio recordings also werenâ€™t Cooderâ€™s main focus during most of this period. Like other respected, low-selling artists, he moved into film work, scoring an impressive array of movies in the 1980s and beyond. Some people will use phrases like â€œlimited vocalistâ€ and â€œerratic songwriterâ€ to say that soundtracks are the best place for Cooderâ€™s talents; these are stupid, awful lies told by stupid, awful people. His film music isnâ€™t bad; indeed, a lot of it is quite good, and one could definitely make the argument that heâ€™s able to stretch out musically a bit more when working in this vein. But it isnâ€™t his best by a long shot.
Get Rhythm is definitely the high point here. Cooder uses a lot of the same technique he brought to John Hiattâ€™s Bring the Family â€” as well as Family drummer Jim Keltner â€” and the result is his fattest, nastiest-sounding album (no small feat, considering it was recorded and released in 1987). The material? Itâ€™s okay. Itâ€™s a little disconcerting to think that the guy who was working such magic with obscure masterpieces in the early â€™70s had now been reduced to covering â€œAll Shook Up,â€ but on the other hand, his versionâ€™s damn great.
After Get Rhythm, Cooder hooked up briefly with Hiatt, Keltner, and Nick Lowe in the short-lived supergroup Little Village. Their highly-anticipated album sold poorly (and really wasnâ€™t all that great); the tour â€” which really was great â€” marked the end of the band, and, seemingly, Cooderâ€™s run as a traditional recording artist.
Part Three: Around the World (1993- )
(Iâ€™ve included 1995â€™s Music by Ry Cooder here simply because it doesnâ€™t fit anywhere else â€” itâ€™s a double-disc compilation of his soundtrack work. Solid, but inessential, unless youâ€™re looking for a couple hours of dusty and occasionally odd instrumental music.)
Otherwise known as the â€œBuena Vista Social Clubâ€ period. Not Cooderâ€™s most prolific years â€” not by a long shot â€” but certainly some of his most interesting work. The downside to being so great at such an early age is that by the time you reach elder statesman status, there isnâ€™t much left for you to do. Like Alexander the Great with a guitar, Cooder had conquered American music; his remaining options of interest were all on other shores. So, after the disintegration of Little Village, Cooder arranged a meeting with Indiaâ€™s V.M. Bhatt, an extraordinary musician known for playing an instrument (which he invented) called the Mohan Vina which I suppose could be best described as a nineteen-string guitar. An hour or two after Cooder and Bhatt met, they were sitting down to make A Meeting by the River, a phenomenal example of cross-cultural pollination that is all the more remarkable when you consider it was recorded, unrehearsed, in a single sitting.
This has been Cooderâ€™s modus operandi since the early â€™90s: Hop from heritage to heritage, letting his natural skill and deep love of music carry him along. Undoubtedly the best-known project of this period (not to mention his entire career) is the Buena Vista Social Club album and documentary, in which Cooder traveled to Havana in order to capture the music of some of Cubaâ€™s best musicians, consigned to obscurity since Castroâ€™s rise to power. Buena Vista isnâ€™t a Ry Cooder album, which is why it isnâ€™t here, but it single-handedly brought Cuban music into the living rooms of white people all over America (not to mention won a Grammy and an Academy Award nomination). Suddenly a musician with a whole bunch of artistic capital to burn, Cooder took advantage of his newfound cachet by doing whatever the hell he wanted. Not that heâ€™d ever been overly concerned with fitting in, per se, but over the last decade or so, Cooder has been blessed with a career in which he can show absolute disregard for commercial considerations and still sell somewhat respectably (not to mention earn heaps of glowing critical praise), including 2003â€™s instrumental collaboration with Manuel GalbÃƒÂ¡n and ChÃƒÂ¡vez Ravine, released last month, a fictionalized song cycle about the Los Angeles neighborhood that was torn down to make room for Dodger Stadium. Heâ€™s probably too old to be â€œhip,â€ even among the NPR set, but heâ€™s making some of the best, most inspired music of his long career.