ALTHOUGH it has short shelf-life built in, this quick and dirty collection of protest songs by one of the world’s greatest guitarists definitely hits the spot
Ry Cooder: Election Special
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Ry Cooder is on a righteous roll. Having discovered relatively late in the day that he really does like songwriting after all, the veteran guitarist has stepped up to the soapbox and found his voice. That voice is rough and ready but it’s saying stuff that relatively few of his contemporaries – and even fewer younger musicians – have the will or gumption to express.
Last year, he tackled the recession and economic corruption on the stark Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down; now, he turns his attention to the forthcoming US presidential election and heads out on the campaign trail – mainly to bury, but sometimes to praise.
Where Pull Up Some Dust… examined the global recession in the context – and down-home musical style - of the first Great Depression, Election Special is nothing but an album for these specific times, making overt reference to Guantánamo, the Occupy movement and a certain Republican candidate for the highest office in the land.
This is not the sophisticated musical territory of Chavez Ravine, his poetic requiem for LA’s displaced Hispanic community. Election Special sounds more like a scratch project, recorded live with minimal rehearsal, a raw response to the current political landscape of his country using voice, guitar, bass, mandolin and with his son Joachim on the drums.
Cooder has no time to finesse or varnish. The clock is ticking – there are less than 80 days to go to the election, and the Republican Convention is only one week away. Boy, are they gonna love the opening track down in Tampa.
Mutt Romney Blues is the musical equivalent of a merciless political cartoon. Earlier this year, it emerged that Mitt Romney once took his family dog on holiday, where it remained in a cage strapped to the car roof rack. Cooder jumps right for the jugular with this thoroughly mischievous junkyard blues sung from the perspective of the poor pooch, its not-so-subtle subtext asking if this is how he treats man’s best friend, is Romney the kind of guy you want as the leader of the free world?
But why stop at pillorying the politicians? Cooder takes a pop at the Republican rank and file on Going To Tampa in which a delegate looks forward to partying at the convention, touching the hem of Sarah Palin’s garment and seeing what he can do about those pesky Mexicans.
Cooder is most certainly having fun at the expense of the Right but Election Special uses more than farce as a weapon. Guantánamo is a sardonic bar-room blues stomp that dispenses with biting satire and just lays it out straight: “You can’t come back from Guantánamo.” The country blues of Brother Is Gone is soft and soulful in execution but just as keen in its aim. Nestling right in the crosshairs are oil tycoons the Koch brothers – “deacons in the High Church of the Next Dollar” as Cooder would have it – who are depicted making a deal with the Devil. Altogether now: “Oil spills and cancer towns, those are our stepping stones.”
But Cooder is not entirely disillusioned. The stealthy blues track Kool-Aid expresses sympathy for the common man who, too late, wakes up and smells the snake oil he’s been sold by the government. And it’s not like Cooder hates all politicians equally – in fact, he is brazenly partisan. There is empathy for the current occupant of the White House on Cold Cold Feeling, a bare, creaky woke-up-this-morning-had-a-country-to-run blues, which portrays president Obama pacing up and down the Oval Office, fretting over the mess we’re in.
The Wall Street Part Of Town is Cooder’s clunky salute to the Occupy movement, capturing the everyday drudge of the protest frontline: “I’m standing in the pouring rain, trying to throw off my chains.” The 90 and the 9 is another rallying cry in the guise of a hillbilly blues, which lays out the arguments for voting Democrat in the form of a father’s advice to his son.
Cooder is clearly as concerned about those who don’t vote as those who vote for the other guys and this song speaks to the need to educate and instil political values in future generations. Cooder references the Pete Seeger quote “I have no hope, I could be wrong”, but he is defiant rather than defeatist – closing track Take Your Hands Off It is a grizzly blues rock stand against the erosion of civil rights.
Of course, he is likely preaching to the converted and, admirable though his cause is, it is unlikely that these somewhat primitive songs, forged swiftly in the heat of Cooder’s humanitarian ire, will have a sustained shelf life. Nevertheless it will be interesting to see where he will direct his righteous rage next, and to follow developments in what could grow into a veritable library of rapid response protest songs.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Monday 20 May 2013
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