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Ry Cooder: The Prodigal Son
by George Graham
(Fantasy Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/9/2018)
One of things I like to do on the Mixed Bag program is to features new recordings by long-time artists who, after decades on the music scene, are still doing some of their best work. This week, we have another example of a veteran artist, with a long and varied career who, in his early 70s, seems still be be at his peak. It’s guitarist, composer and producer Ry Cooder, whose new album, at least the 17th under his own name, is called The Prodigal Son.
Ry Cooder is a Los Angeles native who has been playing guitar since he was three. As a young man, he got a chance to play a one-off show with Bill Monroe and Doc Watson, who told him he was not ready yet. He began to attract attention in 1967 playing with Captain Beefheart’s band, and began to be called upon as a studio musician, playing on Randy Newman’s second album, and in 1968 and 1969, playing on the Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers and Let It Bleed albums. In 1970, he released his debut recording under his own name, which established his eclectic style that drew on some traditional blues, though his various albums touched folk, Tex-Mex and early jazz. His 1979 release Bop Till You Drop was the first rock album to be recorded digitally in multi-track, and contained what became a hit for him, his cover of Elvis Presley’s Little Sister.
In the 1980s, Cooder became became involved with film scoring, and according to one list, created the soundtracks for about 17 films. He also began working in World Music and collaborated with musicians from Africa and the Indian Subcontinent. He produced the very popular Buena Vista Social Club album with veteran Cuban musicians in 1997. Along the way, he picked up six Grammy Awards in categories including Best Recording for Children, Tropical Latin, and Pop Instrumental categories.
In recent years, he has been getting back to his bluesy roots and also bringing some social consciousness into his original lyrics, on such songs as No Banker Left Behind on his 2011 album Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down.
The new album continues in that direction with a mixture of traditional songs, including some Gospel-influenced tunes from the Depression era, with references to hard times, and some originals that speak to the same issues. Cooder plays a most of the instruments, including guitars, banjo, bass, mandolin and keyboards. His son Joaquim Cooder is heard on drums and percussion, with are occasional guests on some of the tracks. Cooder mixes some rather old-timey rural sounds with occasional odd, spacey electronics in a curious juxtaposition at times.
Leading off is a piece which sets up the sound of the album. Straight Street is a song with a 1955 copyright date, though the composer is not specified. The sound is an interesting combination of the rustic-sounding banjo with some rock elements and the soulful, Gospel-influenced backing vocals. <<>>
With a kind of swampy sound is the original song Shrinking Man, from one can infer the loss of economic power. <<>>
One of the more eclectic tracks on the album is an original tune called Gentrificatrion, whose lyrics are about what the title says, with the less wealthy being pushed out of their long-time city homes. <<>>
Everybody Ought To Treat a Stranger Right, is one of the traditional tunes, which has a kind of low-down blues sound. Cooder and his colleagues gives it an interesting twist or two. <<>>
The title track The Prodigal Son is an original tune, loosely based on the Biblical story. It’s about the most electric track on the album. <<>>
A nice Gospel song that was written by composer Alfred Reed in the early 20th Century, seemingly has a relevance in an era of conspicuous flaunting of income inequality. It’s called You Must Unload, and is one of most appealing on the album. <<>>
The most unconventional track on the album is Cooder’s treatment of a traditional tune credited to Blind Willie Johnson, Nobody’s Fault But Mine with a mixture of eerie electronic sounds with a slide guitar. <<>>
Cooder’s social consciousness comes to the fore on the original song Jesus and Woody, with the latter being a reference to Woody Guthrie, whose guitar was famously inscribed with “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Cooder, in his gentle performance draws parallels to the current situation with the rise of hate groups and xenophobes. <<>>
The album ends with In His Care a raw-sounding arrangement of a Gospel song from 1961 by one William Dawson. <<>>
The Prodigal Son, the new album by veteran guitarist and composer Ry Cooder is another worthy addition to his lengthy catalog which runs from traditional blues to world music to children’s music. Here Cooder hews toward what has always been at the core of his wide-ranging stylistic pallet, the blues, and often rural blues. Cooder does some eclectic things with traditional material and also creates several original songs that are in the mold. It’s an album on which he has to things to say about the state of the world, as he has one some of his previous records, going back the Depression era songs he has been known for. It’s a distinctive stylistic mix with the traditional approach to the blues combined with some left-field sonic effects. But for the most part, it’s all very well done, and even when things get a little spacey, the blues and Gospel undercurrent to the music remains.
Our grade for sound quality is a B-Minus. The mix is reasonably good, but the sound is badly volume-compressed and there are instances of the lead vocal being overdriven, which for me there is no excuse.
Ry Cooder has been on the music scene for 50 years now. His long career has had notable milestones that have taken him far and wide musically. But The Prodigal Son in a way takes him back to some of the key influences that were part of his first album in 1970, but with interesting additional ingredients. Cooder is another of those artists who continues to do great work and remain creative as the years go by.
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