Ry Cooder - Election Special
On the heels of his politically outspoken 2011 release, Pull up Some Dust and Sit Down, Ry Cooder has delivered Election Special, nine broadsides against the Republicans, the Right, and corporate America. Cooder’s latest offers a radical’s view of the depressing state of U.S. politics combined with a liberal’s soft spot for Barack Obama. In other words, it’s 1930s Popular Front-ism for the 21st century: damn the reactionaries and get behind the Democrats, no matter how feckless the latter. (In fact, don’t even suggest that Obama has screwed up. “Before you criticize and accuse, walk a mile in his shoes,” Ry admonishes in the album notes.). Cooder doesn’t protest drone missile strikes and civilian deaths from them, the mass deportations of immigrants (Obama’s kicked out far more of them than Bush did), assaults on civil liberties or failed economic policy. Everything that’s gone wrong over the past four years is the GOP’s fault, as he has the Prez complain in the first-person blues, “Cold Cold Feeling.”
Special pleading aside, Cooder’s polemical barbs generally are pretty sharp, and often very funny. In “Mutt Romney Blues,” we get a dog’s-eye view of the GOP candidate from the pooch he infamously transported on the roof of his car (“Boss, I hollered, woof, woof, woof”). Cooder adapts a classic blues trope about hitting the road – “dog’s gotta bottle up and go” – for the mutt’s plight, a metaphor for what the non-privileged among the human species can expect from a President Romney.
In “The Wall Street Part of Town,” an Occupier itches to confront banksters and corporate crooks not only in the heart of finance capital, the Big Apple, but wherever they may be. In “Kool Aid,” Cooder imparts a political consciousness to George Zimmerman lacking in the actual “Stand Your Ground” shooter of African American teenager Treyvon Martin. This Zimmerman, a working class schlub with a lousy job, regrets having drunk deeply from the right wing’s version of the titular beverage.
The jocular “Going to Tampa” mocks Republican hypocrisy about The Sanctity of Marriage – the good ol’ boy narrator heading to the GOP convention is leaving his spouse at home not because he’ll be too busy politicking but because he intends to get his “ashes hauled” (yet another bit of blues language). “Take Your Hands Off It,” an angry take on “This Land is Your Land,” warns Republicans to “get your filthy, stinkin’ hands off my voters rights” and “my reproductive rights.”
In “Cold Cold Feeling,” Obama moans the blues, complaining about “these stray dog Republicans always snapping at my heels.” And in a line obviously written before the Supreme Court (mostly) upheld his health care reform law, he calls the Court “contaminated.” We know the President can carry a tune, but it’s a stretch to imagine the cerebrally cool Obama pleading his case with this much piss and vinegar in his voice. Cooder gives him the rage (and soulfulness) you know he – Cooder – wishes Obama possessed.
The best thing about Election Special is how well Cooder has married sense and sound: the lean, raw and urgent music matches the anger and sardonic humor of the lyrics. Besides writing all the songs, Cooder’s a virtual one-man band, on guitar, mandolin, and bass. (His son Joachim, though not the most swinging of drummers, acquits himself well, especially on the stomping blues-rock numbers.) Cooder’s superlative electric and slide guitar work on this record is just what I want from the man; as much as I liked previous albums like Chavez Ravine and My Name is Buddy, they just didn’t have enough of it. His slide playing kills on “The Wall Street Part of Town” and “Guantanamo” (“you can’t come back from….), the latter sounding like a classic “Let it Bleed” era Stones rocker – as well it might, given that The Stones got this sound from Cooder (who played on that album), as he complained in interviews at the time.
Cooder’s vocal chops have never been stronger; in his mid-60s, he’s singing with more power, assurance and soul than ever. The committed vocal performances on Election Special won’t come as a surprise to fans of Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down – on that album’s “I Want My Crown” he even pulled off a convincing impersonation of Don “Captain Beefheart” Van Vliet, his boss in an early edition of The Magic Band. On his election year intervention, Cooder’s political emotions – sympathy for the president and the downtrodden, anger and loathing for the Right – inspire some of his career-best singing while debunking the tired (conservative) notion that politics inevitably makes for bad art. And then there’s that slide guitar. - George de Stefano
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