Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Taj Mahal & Ry Cooder [extended]

  • Taj Mahal [Columbia, 1968]
  • Ry Cooder [Reprise, 1970] B
  • Into the Purple Valley [Reprise, 1971] B+
  • The Real Thing [Columbia, 1971] B
  • Happy Just to Be Like I Am [Columbia, 1971] B+
  • Boomer's Story [Reprise, 1972] B
  • Sounder [Columbia, 1972] C+
  • Recycling the Blues and Other Related Stuff [Columbia, 1972] B
  • Ooh So Good 'n Blues [Columbia, 1973] A-
  • Paradise and Lunch [Reprise, 1974] A-
  • Mo' Roots [Columbia, 1974] B+
  • Music Keeps Me Together [Columbia, 1975] C+
  • Chicken Skin Music [Reprise, 1976] B
  • Satisfied 'n Tickled Too [Columbia, 1976] B-
  • Music fuh Ya (Musica para Tu) [Warner Bros., 1976] B
  • Brothers [Warner Bros., 1977] C-
  • The Taj Mahal Anthology: Volume 1 [Columbia, 1977] A-
  • Jazz [Warner Bros., 1978] C+
  • Evolution (the Most Recent) [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+
  • Taj's Blues [Columbia/Legacy, 1992] A
  • Talking Timbuktu [Hannibal, 1994] Neither
  • Phantom Blues [Private Music, 1996] Choice Cuts
  • An Evening of Acoustic Music [RFR, 1996] ***
  • Kulanjan [Hannibal, 1999] A-
  • Shoutin' in Key: Taj Mahal and the Phantom Blues Band Live [Hannibal, 2000] ***
  • The Best of Taj Mahal [Columbia/Legacy, 2000] A
  • The Best of the Private Years [Private Music, 2000] *
  • Hanapepe Dream [Tone-Cool, 2003] Choice Cuts
  • Mambo Sinuendo [Nonesuch/Perro Verde, 2003] B-
  • My Name Is Buddy [Nonesuch, 2007] ***
  • Maestro [Heads Up, 2008] A-
  • 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 Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal 1969-1973 [Columbia/Legacy, 2012] **
  • Live in San Francisco [Nonesuch/Perro Verde, 2013] **
  • The Prodigal Son [Fantasy, 2018] A-
  • Get on Board [Nonesuch, 2022] *
  • Savoy [Stony Plain, 2023] A

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Taj Mahal: Taj Mahal [Columbia, 1968]
The former Henry Saint Claire Fredericks wasn't just the most prominent young African-American of the blues revival. He was its most credible voice, and more--forty years later, he's clearly an original stylist already in bloom. Avidly and affably fronting a superb Ry Cooder-Jesse Ed Davis band, Mahal does every standard here proud. Sleepy John Estes's "Leaving Trunk" he now owns. Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues" he showed the world. The original "E Z Rider" he could have found on an old 78.

Ry Cooder: 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

Ry Cooder: 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+

Taj Mahal: The Real Thing [Columbia, 1971]
Taj's second straight two-album set is a live one, featuring sidemen from John Simon and John Hall to Kwasi DziDournu, four count-'em four tubas, and ten count-'em ten titles. Lots of fun, but as you might expect, things get very loose, especially when the tubists lay their burdens down. B

Taj Mahal: Happy Just to Be Like I Am [Columbia, 1971]
This relaxed, witty survey of musical Afro-America is strongest when its compositions verge on interpretations. You hear the steel drums on "West Indian Revelation" and realize that the foreign lilt of "Chevrolet" is Caribbean. You hear "Black Spirit Boogie" and realize how many ways there are to keep an acoustic guitar solo interesting once you've acquired a natural sense of rhythm. And you hear "Oh Susanna" and realize it's back to where it once belonged. B+

Ry Cooder: 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

Taj Mahal: Sounder [Columbia, 1972]
The first soundtrack ever patterned after a field recording, this suite/montage/succession of hums, moans, claps, and plucked fragments, all keyed to Lightnin' Hopkins's gorgeous gospel blues "Needed Time," is regarded by one trustworthy observer, Greil Marcus, as Taj's most eloquent music. But even Greil doesn't know anybody who agrees. I've always regarded field recordings as study aids myself. C+

Taj Mahal: Recycling the Blues and Other Related Stuff [Columbia, 1972]
Heard in the wake of one of Taj's magic shows, the live side seemed an amusing simulation, but no more--the call-and-response goes on too long at 3:40. This might also be said of the 8:40 Spanish guitar (banjo?) solo on side two. The record earns its title, though--the Smithsonian ought to hire this man. Latest instrument: the Pointer Sisters. B

Taj Mahal: Ooh So Good 'n Blues [Columbia, 1973]
Taj hasn't used drums on a record since Happy Just to Be Like I Am, but he rocks so easy it took me till now to notice. On "Little Red Hen" he matches the Pointer Sisters strut for strut, and though that's the only great one he also renews "Dust My Broom" and "Frankie and Albert," earns a medal from fat liberation by reviving "Built for Comfort," and picks two time-honored tunes out of his National steel-bodied. In short, his best in years, only what experimental genie drives him to flaw every one of his albums? Here it's "Teacup's Jazzy Blues Tune," named after his jazz-loving brother-manager and featuring a virtually inaudible upright bass solo. A-

Ry Cooder: 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-

Taj Mahal: Mo' Roots [Columbia, 1974]
Taj hies to the West Indies, singing part of "Cajun Waltz" in French and part of "Why Did You Have to Desert Me?" in Spanish and translating "Blackjack Davy" into reggae. Reggae predominates, a natural extension of his sleepy, sun-warmed blues. But that doesn't mean you wouldn't rather hear the Slickers do "Johnny Too Bad." B+

Taj Mahal: Music Keeps Me Together [Columbia, 1975]
In which Taj doffs the mask of folklorist and reveals himself as a pop singer in a vaguely Caribbean-Brazilian mode. Vagueness--and worse, cuteness (what they do to Joseph Spence's "Roll, Turn, Spin")--provided by the Intergalactic Soul Messengers Band. Best cut: a folkloric Caribbeanizing of "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man." C+

Ry Cooder: 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

Taj Mahal: Satisfied 'n Tickled Too [Columbia, 1976]
Better the Intergalactic Soul Messengers Band, who improvise less and back more (though unfortunately they compose more too), than the East-West Connection Orchestra, who root Taj in Philadelphia on "Baby Love" (no, not that "Baby Love"). And better John Hurt's title tune and Taj's "Ain't Nobody's Business" than either. B-

Taj Mahal: Music fuh Ya (Musica para Tu) [Warner Bros., 1976]
This time the Caribbeanization adds steel drums and a pervasive calypso beat to the country-blues vocal phrasing and jazz-voiced horns, and finally an appropriate smoothness is achieved. The songs aren't much, but "Sailin' Into Walker's Cay" cancels out his bass player's tedious "Curry," and if you have to listen easy you might as well relax with this. B

Taj Mahal: Brothers [Warner Bros., 1977]
Movie music for a film about George Jackson. It's even got a whole side of new songs. George Jackson would have seen through it. C-

Taj Mahal: The Taj Mahal Anthology: Volume 1 [Columbia, 1977]
About time somebody whittled Taj's experiments down to a few classics, and nice to hear a blues album by him, even one from '66-'71. He sure is more idiomatic than any of the white guys who were doing revivals back then. Though he uses drums and electric guitars most of the time, he doesn't pattern himself on the hard, shouting Chicago style of Muddy Waters and such intense Delta forebears as Robert Johnson--his singing is assertive yet relaxed, like an unmenacing Lightnin' Hopkins with a healthy admixture of John Hurt. He does get too relaxed at times, even with "Six Days on the Road" to keep him alert. But this is where to begin. A-

Ry Cooder: 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+

Taj Mahal: Evolution (the Most Recent) [Warner Bros., 1978]
Things finally get going toward the end of side two with an insane Howlin' Wolf imitation and a calypso-blues trucking song complete with CB. But by then the flaccid fusions and anonymous collective compositions have turned the same steel drums which sounded so fresh on Music fuh Ya into an annoyance, like a combination cymbal wash and synthesizer on a bad disco record. C+

Ry Cooder: 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+

Ry Cooder: 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-

Ry Cooder: 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+

Ry Cooder: 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+

Taj Mahal: Taj's Blues [Columbia/Legacy, 1992]
I used to regard Taj as a walking Afro-musical encyclopedia, but the more I listened to this endlessly listenable anthology the less derivative he seemed. Nobody else has ever sung blues this way--cutting rural slack with urban hyperconsciousness, he's Jim Crow's bumpkin turning into Zip Coon's dandy without the negative vibe of either stereotype. Sly and cocky, but so full of fun you don't resent it, he sneaks beats from all over the diaspora under these mostly classic tunes as he shows off the effortless size and avidity of his voice and the National steel-bodied and acoustic 12-string he tiptoes out with. A

Ali Farka Touré with Ry Cooder: Talking Timbuktu [Hannibal, 1994] Neither

Taj Mahal: Phantom Blues [Private Music, 1996]
"Ooh Poo Pah Doo" Choice Cuts

Taj Mahal: An Evening of Acoustic Music [RFR, 1996]
old dog's blues ("Satisfied 'n' Tickled Too," "Sittin' on Top of the World") ***

Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate: Kulanjan [Hannibal, 1999]
No longer does Mahal talk a bigger African diaspora than he walks. He deserves his top billing, but every other musician on this piece of serendipity is a West African retrofitting a simple little studio in Athens GA. Like the guitar hotshot he'd have turned into Stateside, costar Diabate is a virtuoso and nothing more, and his Manding songs are mostly some kind of change. But when his kora echoes the happy-hollering "Ol' Georgie Buck" or the deep-Delta "Catfish Blues," those straightforward old blues take on a filigree Diabate's percussive confederates can go to work on. And when Mahal's piano strides beneath the balafon of a Diabate named Lasana, the rhythms canter so comically you wonder who said open sesame. A-

Taj Mahal: Shoutin' in Key: Taj Mahal and the Phantom Blues Band Live [Hannibal, 2000]
Love so much music and there's always more songs waiting ("Honky Tonk," "Ain't That a Lot of Love"). ***

Taj Mahal: The Best of Taj Mahal [Columbia/Legacy, 2000]
Though the box is too much as usual, rest assured that none of his albums have gotten worse. But since not everyone's a natural sucker for John Hurt's love child moved down to New Orleans and taken up with a St. Kitts woman, here's where to find out how much you care. Five of 17 songs are also on the paradigm-shifting 1992 comp Taj's Blues, which also begins (and why not?) with "Statesboro Blues" and "Leaving Trunk." But starting with 1969's The Natch'l Blues, say, would mean missing, to name just two, Dave Dudley's Teamster-certified "Six Days on the Road" and the Pointer Sisters' sashaying backup on "Cakewalk Into Town." Don't die without hearing that one. It's reason to live all by itself. A

Taj Mahal: The Best of the Private Years [Private Music, 2000]
The best was discovering the black music the '60s folkie missed ("Mockingbird," "Ooh Poo Pah Doo"). *

Taj Mahal & the Hula Blues: Hanapepe Dream [Tone-Cool, 2003]
"Livin' on Easy" Choice Cuts

Ry Cooder/Manuel Galbán: Mambo Sinuendo [Nonesuch/Perro Verde, 2003]
Before deciding whether you really want the new Ry Cooder album, try an easier question--do you really want the new Manuel Galbán album? That is, the solo debut (well, duo debut) by the guitarist-arranger of the "great" (I keep reading but not hearing) old Cuban doowop group Los Zafiros. Unless you're one of those guys who keeps up with Dick Dale, probably not. Which clears up the Ry question without even referencing clunky drummer Joachim Cooder, who should never be allowed to back one of his father's discoveries again for as long as he lives. B-

Ry Cooder: 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"). ***

Taj Mahal: Maestro [Heads Up, 2008]
Maybe I have a weakness for African-Americans from Hawaii, or maybe this one knows how to bend the blues, croon the diaspora and also sing Hawaiian. Then again, on his strongest non-collaborative album since the '70s, it's possible he's just extra excited. At 66, he leads multiple bands, including Los Lobos and Ivan Neville's crew through previously unmined naturals, from "Scratch My Back" to "Diddy Wah Diddy," and keeper originals such as "Strong Man Holler," in praise of a woman who was sweet 17 in halcyon 1959. A-

Ry Cooder: 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"). ***

Ry Cooder: 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-

Ry Cooder: 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+

Taj Mahal: The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal 1969-1973 [Columbia/Legacy, 2012]
A dozen previously unearthed semiprecious stones plus ramshackle concert ("Sweet Mama Janisse," "I Pity the Poor Immigrant") **

Ry Cooder and Corridos Famosos: Live in San Francisco [Nonesuch/Perro Verde, 2013]
He's become a far more ingratiating entertainer since the first time he recorded a live Gary U.S. Bonds cover--also a far more Latino one, in this case Mexican ("El Corrido de Jesse James," "Wooly Bully") **

Ry Cooder: 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-

Get on Board [Nonesuch, 2022]
Ry's more than Taj's tribute to Folkways-validated Piedmont bluesmen Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, who the notes note were "not encoded, there was no secret race subtext to worry about" ("Hooray Hooray," "Deep Sea Diver") *

Taj Mahal: Savoy [Stony Plain, 2023]
His voice has dried up a pinch or two since he was born in 1942, so long ago that his pianist-arranger dad and gospel-singing mom could well have heard most of these Black pop standards at the landmark Harlem ballroom of the title before they emigrated with young Henry to Springfield Mass. True, these performances can't quite match the voracity that animated Taj's Blues and Ooh So Good 'n Blues lo these many years ago. But the songs he settled on are so classic yet so varied--Gershwin, Ellington, Mercer-Arlen, Louis Jordan, McKinney's Cotton Pickers--they vie with the traditional blues he's been recording off and on since he abandoned agronomy so he could spend his life exploring Africa's musical diaspora. Over the years he's focused on his familial Caribbean while going so far as to hook up with Malian kora master Toumani Diabate on 1999's Kulanjan. But with invaluable help from the great lost producer John Simon, who also adds the kind of piano Taj's dad might have, this album is pretty much one of a kind. If you're afraid it's not for you, at least check out Maria Muldaur's cameo on "Baby It's Cold Outside." You owe it to yourself, and to history. A