CD Review Ry Cooder “Election Special”
Nonesuch Records, August, 2012
By Dan King
Woody Guthrie did it. Pete Seeger did it. Joan Baez did it. Many musical artists down through time have enlisted their craft to make a political point or foster social change. August 2012 found Ry Cooder carrying on that tradition with the release of his latest short play CD – “Election Special.”
“Election Special” is a poignant view of political issues that were hot leading up to the 2012 presidential election, many of which promise to hang around if the post-election turmoil is any indication. Within this work, Cooder utilizes traditional roots music instrumentation and his rough but sincere vocal styling to weave his way through nine original compositions that absolutely drip with musical genius and political insight. Hailing from a generation that started off wanting to change the world but somehow got lost along the way, Cooder is as radical and focused as any 60’s cause artist on “Election Special.”
The first tune, Mutt Romney Blues, is a clever bluesy ditty sung from the perspective of Mitt Romney’s dog on the roof of his car. Silly issue? Some would think so, others would take great offense. Such is the nature of politics. The second cut, Brother Is Gone, is a hypnotizing tone poem about the Koch Brothers selling their souls to the devil for power and wealth. As you may have guessed by now, the album leans decidedly to the left on the political spectrum, but the music and the concept of musical activism land squarely in the middle of raw Americana. Agree or disagree with the points of view contained, the mere fact that Ry Cooder can state his political position publicly through his music shines as a beacon for the uniquely American institution of freedom of speech.
About half of the album sounds as if it could have been recorded back in the 40’s or 50’s with vintage sounding instruments and authentic playing. There is also some very rock/R & B oriented material included but the common thread is the ever-present political message. Cooder is a master of the blues slide guitar which is peppered throughout the recording. He also rarely uses a standard tuning on his guitars which tends to give a little different flavor to his playing than most guitarists. If it reminds you of The Rolling Stones, it’s probably because Cooder taught Keith Richards how to play in the open G tuning way back in the 60’s which shaped much of the guitar work on the Stones recordings . Ry also plays mandolin and bass and his son Joachim Cooder plays drums. The only other credit on the album is for Arnold McCuller who sings harmony on “Take Your Hands Off It,” a plea for politicians to stop treading on the Constitution of the United States. The result is a sparse yet powerful pallet of musical colors to paint the political messages with.
Ry Cooder has come on strong in recent years with several stellar works including his California Trilogy, three concept albums that each contain top shelf material. “Election Special” is not Ry’s first foray into the political world, witness his expose on hardball urban renewal ”Chavez Ravine” and his depression era tome “My Name Is Buddy,” two of the discs from the Trilogy. He also found himself in trouble with the US Government a few years back when he travelled to Cuba and recorded a group of older Cuban “rock stars,” Cuban artists that had been big names in that country when they were younger. That work, “Buena Vista Social Club,” earned Ry lavish critical acclaim and a charge of trading with the enemy from Uncle Sam. Only a pardon from then President Clinton allowed Mr. Cooder back into the country.
“Election Special” is every bit as good and relevant as those recent gems and maybe more powerful. Ryland Peter Cooder seems to just get better with age. I am awarding this recording 4.75 Banjo Strings out of 5 with the prediction that you’ll love it if you’re a lefty, appreciate it if you like art, and perhaps have some trouble with it if you’re disgruntled with the election results. Either way, there is no denying the influence that music can have on shaping not only political views, but everything else human, right down to the kind of car you drive.
Now that this election cycle is over, let’s hope Americans can get together, find common ground, and sing a few rounds of “God Bless America” in unison.
Dan King writes for Prescription Bluegrass.