Ry Cooder is stuck in a "Ravine"

July 6, 2005, midnight | By Simon Kanter | 18 years, 9 months ago

Latest album runs counter to most mainstream music

For the last decade, Ry Cooder had been traveling all over the country and the world, accumulating new styles and sounds as he went along. One could say he was attending music school-learning different styles from the masters and then turning around and spinning out new and brilliantly tangled webs of music. His album "Buena Vista Social Club" was a learning experience in conjunction with the Cuban music greats of yesteryear, and the web he spun from that was "Mambo Sinuendo," a fusion of the traditional Cuban music and modern lobby-music-tech-pop.

InCooder's new album, "Chávez Ravine," he mixes all of these together with the flavor of an ethnic Mexican sound that is new to Cooder's music. The album is a tribute to the Chicano community Chávez Ravine that was razed against the will of the residents to make room for the Dodgers Stadium in the 1950s. There are myriad styles present-Mexican Mariachi in the song "Corrido de Boxeo" to a neo-Cuban sound blended with slack-key guitar reminiscent of Hawaii in the fifth track "Muy Fifí." However, often mediocre or disjointed vocals and lyrics throw the entire collaborative effort out the door. But in some cases, such as the third track "Don't Call Me Red," this distortion is on purpose. On that track, Cooder imitates, albeit rather poorly, old Roy Rogers records where the song was as much spoken storytelling as singing.

The CD has 15 cuts, all of which are incredibly distinct and utterly unique, although sometimes too distinct and unique. It comes in a sleeve with a large, immaculately and artistically constructed insert with the song lyrics in Spanish and English and semi-comprehensible streams of consciousness written by Ry himself. The cover, a pencil drawing of a skeleton in a bulldozer and a UFO hovering over the Chávez Ravine neighborhood, pretty much summarizes the entire album: fuzzy, sketched, destructive and just slightly skewed.

The most interesting yet least appealing aspect of the CD is that it is as much of a historical journey as a musical one. Cooder certainly did not record "Ravine" to entertain people; it is almost as unmelodic as beat poetry. He went to the neighborhood that used to be Chávez Ravine and interviewed residents, looked at old maps, clipped old headlines, copied old pictures and found or recreated old audio clips from the time the struggle took place.

As a result, the music Cooder produced was more of a scrapbook of the struggle and community than a collection of mainstream conventional tunes. While the message is strong, the music is often unappealing or incomprehensible. Without carefully scrutinizing the insert that came with the CD, a listener would be hard-pressed to extract any meaning from the odd juxtaposition of sounds, voices, instruments and discords, especially because the majority of songs were recorded in Spanish.

Unfortunately, the music is lost in the message with this new album. This CD tries to carry meaning and protest inequity in the world, similar to what Bob Dylan did with his music and voice, but falls far short as a result of scattered rhythms and inconsistent melodies.

In keeping with Ry Cooder tradition, the album is not only his own music but a collaboration of many songs and artists. A few tracks even feature musicians and singers who grew up in the area at the time of the tumultuous events, such as Lalo Guerrero. Some of the songs were written about the crises in Chávez Ravine at the time they were happening, and almost all of them are small anecdotes of living in the community in the 1950s, such as "Corrido de Boxeo," "Onda Callejera," "3 Cool Cats," "Muy Fifí" and "Barrio Viejo."

If you are looking for a traditionally beautiful and exotic Ry Cooder album as many have come to expect from him, you are looking down the wrong "Ravine." If you are looking for Buena Vista dance tunes, the only thing the two have in common is the Spanish language and a few riffs here and there. On the other hand, if you are looking for something meaningful, historic, poetic and radically offbeat, then this is the album for you.

As a teen of the super-pop music generation, this album runs counter to almost every principle of music I have been taught, and leaves an awful ringing noise in my ears. While this CD introduces some new and incredibly creative styles of music, it just is not my groove and it probably will not be yours either if you are a fan of any type of mainstream music. Lacking in convention and often self-contradictory, this album is one "Ravine" I'd rather not explore.

Simon Kanter. Simon "The Food Guy" Kanter is the silliest person you will ever meet. Though his true joy in life is posting recipes, Simon finds time to spend patting himself on the back for his witty remarks, breeding Trogdors, stealing markers, staplers and other convenient appliances, … More »

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