Political commentary with an emphatic rhythm
Ryland Cooder has been around for ever. He’s played with everyone from the Monkees to the Rolling Stones, dug up more musical archeology than just about anyone other than the late Alan Lomax, introduced great musicians like the Buena Vista Social Club to the world and worked on classic films like Paris, Texas.
His musical career kicked off in the early 1960s playing with Taj Mahal and Ed Cassidy in a little band called Rising Sons, although their studio efforts weren’t released for about 30 years.
Albums, studio work (the highlight of which has to be playing on the Let It Bleed sessions when he provided mandolin on Love in Vain and slide on Sister Morphine) and some songwriting filled the coming years but after a long break from recording, Cooder stepped back into the limelight with a couple of sociological storybooks, Chavez Ravine and My Name is Buddy in 2005 and 2007.
The first was a musical painting of a Los Angeles Latino neighbourhood while the other was a collection of John Steinbeck inspired tunes about the Great Depression.
In the last two years Cooder has been laying down a soundtrack to the current Great Recession in the United States. Last year’s Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (reviewed here on March 9) has been trumped by Election Special (Warner Music), nine urgent songs about US politics and the Barack Obama/Mitt Romney showdown on November 6.
The album was recorded live in the lounge room of musical engineer Martin Pradler’s North Hollywood home with Cooder rattling a pre-World War 11 Regal Domino guitar and squeezing a Stratocaster while his son and touring partner Joachim accompanies on drums - Cooder also plays bass and mandolin.
The first song is like a skit from Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show - a savage put down of Romney for his holiday car drive from Boston to Canada with his dog in a box on the roof, called Mutt Romney’s Blues. It’s a good curtain raiser that will get your foot bouncing but more fun and frolic than the rest of the record.
The next song is modern protest gold. Brother is Gone is the story of the Koch brothers, David and Charles, the pair of billionaire industrialists who have spent wildly to make Obama a one-term president.
This is an eloquent and expressive tale which picks up the old Robert Johnson story of going down to the crossroads and trading his soul for an ability to make magic guitar music.
Here the brothers meet up with the devil and are told ‘’you will be exalted in the evil works of men/high powers rollin’ over land and sea’’ as Cooder’s delicate vocal is carried along by an equally evocative mandolin. As the dark bargain is struck, the brothers are reminded of the price to pay: “But some dark night I’ll be coming ‘round again/And take one of you down back to hell with me.”
The Wall Street Part of Town sounds like it was conceived during last year’s Pull Up Some Dust recordings - which it was. Cooder apparently thought it was not folkie enough for that collection and kept it in his pocket for this go round.
It’s a bar-room chugger, punched out with Cooder’s Stratocaster and Joquim’s emphatic wood and skin rhythm. From there the record moves to military and foreign policy with Guantanamo, a guitar-led story about the hell hole for terrorist suspects (“Do the children know you can’t come home?’’ and “What would Jesus say?”).
This showcases some of Cooder’s best guitar work in a long time and feels like it will long outlive the album.
Cold, Cold Feeling is a old time blues tune in the style of Texas guitarist and songwriter T-Bone Walker - a dual inductee to the Blues and Rock and Roll halls of fame.
It channels Obama walking through the White House, haunted by the Republican zealots (called stray dogs always snapping at his heels) who he says are trying to segregate the US again by revisiting Jim Crow laws that denied African Americans the vote.
It is a great companion piece to the light-hearted Make John Lee Hooker President from Pull Up Some Dust. The Republicans remain under the spotlight for Going To Tampa, a tune sung by a delegate off to the Florida convention where he hopes to catch a smile from Sarah Palin and looks to shouting “hallelujah in the evening”.
The last trio of tunes begins with the other great song from the Election Special sessions. Kool-Aid is about a young man who, having swallowed the spin on righteous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, sets off to take a stand “against black, brown, yellow and tan”.
Arriving home is another thing altogether - there’s no job and no hope. “All I got is just about gone/Kool-Aid, I drank your Kool-Aid,” Cooder sings with a beaten, weary vocal against haunting guitar mixes.
If the theme sounds familiar it is - Cooder has reprised the classic Cocaine Blues suggesting the George W Bush Kool-Aid is just as powerful as that enslaving drug.
The 90 and the 9 is Cooder’s take on the Occupy movement, a brilliant nod to Woodie Guthrie and the besieged American trade union movement. With a “we’ve been here before” lament, Cooder suggest this could be the “last time” for the Democrats, picking up Obama’s theme of two futures for the USA.
The closer, Take Your Hands Off It, is a barnstorming shout, demanding the people reclaim the US constitution, the Bill of Rights and voting rights from the Republicans and the Tea Party who seek personal ownership of the lot.
A percussion-driven rocker, it defies any listener to sit still. “Get your bloody hands off the peoples of the world/And your war machine and your corporation thieves/That lets you keep your job and pays your dirty salary/Take your hands off us, you know we don’t belong to you.”
That’s an in-your-face denunciation of the American political right and a very apt finish to an album that captures the mood of an election year like no other. Bruce Springsteen gave us some great themes in his masterwork Wrecking Ball but from the other side of the US Cooder has laid down the here and now of 2012. It’s strong enough to outlast its subject matter.
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