Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Ry Cooder

  • Ry Cooder [Reprise, 1970] B
  • Into the Purple Valley [Reprise, 1971] B+
  • Boomer's Story [Reprise, 1972] B
  • Paradise and Lunch [Reprise, 1974] A-
  • Chicken Skin Music [Reprise, 1976] B
  • Jazz [Warner Bros., 1978] C+
  • Bop Till You Drop [Warner Bros., 1979] B+
  • Borderline [Warner Bros., 1980] B-
  • The Slide Area [Warner Bros., 1982] C+
  • Get Rhythm [Warner Bros., 1987] B+
  • My Name Is Buddy [Nonesuch, 2007] ***
  • I, Flathead (Limited Deluxe Edition) [Nonesuch, 2008] ***
  • Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down [Nonesuch, 2011] A-
  • Election Special [Nonesuch/Perro Verde, 2012] B+
  • The Prodigal Son [Fantasy, 2018] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Ry Cooder [Reprise, 1970]
According to his own complaints, which may well be warranted, the world's favorite studio bottleneck is also the man from whom Mick and Keith stole "Let It Bleed." Now if only he could sing as good as Mick and Keith maybe he'd put his own blues synthesis across. As it stands, Cooder's singing and projection are so flat they recall the folkie fantasy in which the real blues comes from toothless old men on porches--songs by Tommy Tucker and Fats Waller and even Randy Newman (who gets a lot more out of his own narrow pipes) sound as humble as those by Sleepy John Estes and Blind Willie Johnson. Cooder has two folkie virtues, though--he remembers the Depression and he finds wonderful songs. Alfred Reed's "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times as These" is proof of both. B

Into the Purple Valley [Reprise, 1971]
This time Cooder's Everyman sounds homely rather than humble, with an honest wit that escapes the bankers and lawmen on his back, though the "wonderful urbanity" of F.D.R.--the phrase is calypsonian Fitz McLean's--remains an ideal. "How Can You Keep on Moving" and "Taxes on the Farmer Feed Us All," unearthed by Cooder from the public domain, are just what he's after: eloquence that's never high-flown, which of course underscores the eloquence. Ditto for the guitar(s), especially on "Billy the Kid" and (Dickey Doo's!) "Teardrops Will Fall." B+

Boomer's Story [Reprise, 1972]
Enslaved by the tradition of the new, I prefer the Cooder who rediscovers material I never dreamed existed to the Cooder who replicates Sleepy John Estes and Skip James. Especially since one of the Estes songs he's found is of even more dubious interest than Estes's singing style, while the James instrumental is a confusingly airy interlude between his two most gratifying discoveries: "Boomer's Story" and "Crow Black Chicken." Bonus: Cooder's impression of John Fahey playing "Dark End of the Street." B

Paradise and Lunch [Reprise, 1974]
Cooder's problematic vocal authority has always made it harder for him to establish the practicability of the traditional rural values he treasures in the urban '70s. So his transformation of Bacharach-David's "Mexican Divorce" into a folk song that stands alongside Willie McTell's "Married Man's a Fool" is very encouraging. And though what impresses me about this album is its perfection of tone, what wins my love is the anomalous "Ditty Wa Ditty." A-

Chicken Skin Music [Reprise, 1976]
The title refers to a Hawaiian expression closely allied to "goose bumps," which has to be the most modest instance of hubris on record--I mean, does Ry really believe this is gonna make my skin prickle? Folk eclecticism is a nouveau-jug commonplace, after all, even if most nouveau jugheads do lack Ry's imagination and musicianship, not to mention the capital to dab color from Honolulu and San Antonio onto the same LP. B

Jazz [Warner Bros., 1978]
Cooder's not trying to pass off this pastiche of coon songs, Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke, and Joseph Spence as "real jazz"--he's trying to convince us that the modest roots of "real jazz" merit revitalization. Unfortunately, the whole project is so forced that these roots--if that's what they are--show about as much life as a hat tree. C+

Bop Till You Drop [Warner Bros., 1979]
In which selected '60s r&b--obscure, but not totally: Howard Tate, Arthur Alexander, Ike & Tina, Fontella & Bobby--enters the folkie canon. Along with an obscure Elvis Presley song, selected older obscurities, and an original about Hollywood obvious enough for Elvin Bishop. With Ry singing as loud as he can, Bobby King chiming over him from the background, and Chaka Khan pitching in on two tracks, if even cuts a respectable groove. But drop you it won't. B+

Borderline [Warner Bros., 1980]
Cooder's current soul/r&b interests inhibit his songfinding--"634-5789" and "Speedo" may enlighten his esoteric faithful, but to a dumb old rock-and-roller like me they're just lame covers. "Down in the Boondocks" ain't so functional either. "The Girls From Texas" I can use--one more communiqué on the battle of the sexes from a combatant who's been minoring in the subject from jump street. In this one she blows his head off, and that ain't all. B-

The Slide Area [Warner Bros., 1982]
From racially suspect novelty number to Street-Legal tribute to immodest claims on "Gypsy Woman" and "Blue Suede Shoes" side one is weird old Ry at his most misguided. Despite a topical update on Willie Dixon's "Which Came First," side two is Ry the company folk-rocker trying to squeeze his weird old self into a formula that wasn't really commercial when the company devised it. C+

Get Rhythm [Warner Bros., 1987]
With his desire to please and his lust for lucre both slaked by his renown as a soundtrack composer, he's free to follow his ugly voice where it leads--he's never been louder, and it suits him. Somebody else's blues, "I Can Tell by the Way You Smell," articulates his raw sense of dirty; somebody else's calypso, "Women Will Rule the World," does the same for his postfeminist blues sexism. And "Going Back to Okinawa" is an original only a folklorist could distinguish from the found weirdness that's always been his redeeming social value. B+

My Name Is Buddy [Nonesuch, 2007]
The musical tail of a cat whose best friend is a leftist mouse--OK, I'll bite ("Red Cat Till I Die," "Cat and Mouse"). ***

I, Flathead (Limited Deluxe Edition) [Nonesuch, 2008]
Soundtrack to the nifty book of linked short stories this version includes, which is more entertaining than the songs because the characters aren't all musicians ("Pink-O Boogie," "Ridin' With the Blues"). ***

Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down [Nonesuch, 2011]
Folksingers are pretty mad these days, at times to the point of pushing back at the ravening rich people who are sitting on their heads. Some even refer to class or (can it be?) speak up for unions. But not one has topped a sardonic satire like "No Banker Left Behind" with a murderous ballad about Jesse James and his illicitly retrieved .44 taking every bonus-hogging fat cat in heaven to hell with him, or despoiled a Christmas corrido for GIs on leave with anything as gruesome as "I'd like a mouth so I can kiss my honey on the lips." A few tracks drag and one or two misfire. But from John Lee Hooker's campaign song to the earned nostalgia of a lonely old Chicano who'll forgive you for driving a Japanese car, Cooder has brought his longstanding obsession with the Great Depression into the present, where it unfortunately, tragically, enragingly belongs. Kudos too to drummer Joachim Cooder. This doesn't rock, and it shouldn't. But it rollicks, skanks, and two-steps just fine. A-

Election Special [Nonesuch/Perro Verde, 2012]
Protest songs are hard to nail even in the moment, and I can't promise that the three bull's-eyes here will sound as dead on in five years, or one. Cooder's innovation is reapplying the Popular Front mindset to the messy compromises of electoral politics, and all the must-hears illuminate the 2012 presidential election rather than merely referencing it: "Mutt Romney Blues," where the Republican standard bearer does to his dog precisely what he'll do to us; "Cold Cold Feeling," where a black man in the White House details his blues; and especially "The 90 and the 9," where the singer explains why he's repurposing that gospel song about this may be the last time. "Going to Tampa" slaps on too broad a burlesque, "Guantanamo" wanders off message, and others just don't twist the screw tight enough. But I give him extra credit for both preaching to the converted and doing his damnedest to rally the holier-than-thou. B+

The Prodigal Son [Fantasy, 2018]
The coup on this gospel-based protest album is master archivist Cooder's overhaul of Blind Alfred Reed's all too jauntily self-righteous "You Must Unload," which skips the captious cigarette-smoking and card-party verses and writes in some jewel-encrusted high heels as it stretches what becomes a heartstruck the-rich-shall-not enter entreaty to five minutes. Going for class-conscious reverence at all costs, Cooder milks his version of the canon from the Pilgrim Travelers to Carter Stanley with a double dip of Blind Willie Johnson and adds three relevant originals: the reverent "Jesus and Woody," the worried, comic "Shrinking Man," and "Gentrification," which calls out two enemies of the people by name: Johnny Depp up front and a regiment of coffee-swilling Googlemen covering his rear. A-