Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Music With Legs: Ry Cooder

I continue to have a difficult time when it comes to listening to music. The past season was little more than a prolongation of my mid-life summer of discontent. I could get pissy on the the subject, but I don't want to take it out on the bands, or even the labels, really. God knows everyone in the biz is having a hard time keeping up with the sea-changes roiling among contemporary listeners. Keep fighting for that fourth chord, kids. Just don't hire lawyers to do it for you, or you might as well call it a day and start landscaping.

Here is a review I really enjoyed reading. I gave the act, Dr. Dog, some cursory attention, but quickly moved on to other distractions. After reading Sam Sweet's appreciation I had to wonder what threw me off the scent? Some of the usual culprits come to the fore: the arm's-length album art, the striving for genuine expression even though the group chose a goofy band name. That last aspect is a greater prejudice than I'd like to admit. The fact is I'm more inclined to grant respect to a metal act for the sincerity of their revolting idiocy. I don't have to ponder the names of most metal bands -- unlike, say, Alpha Male & The Canine Mystery Blood. Sincerity matters more and more as I get older.

But what is a young band to do in times like these? The ice-caps of critical distinction have melted, and the seas of genre have merged to become universal, tepid and inchoate. If a group has the chops for it, they can struggle to forge something distinct. Or they can ape their favorite Band Of Yore, in hopes of finding their own sound somewhere between the beloved chord progressions. And there remain some tidal ponds in which Tradition is still hallowed. But the odds that any of these strategies will erupt and create the sort of enormous public stir that can contribute to a musician's retirement fund are poor. Best to just keep playing the lottery.

In an environment such as this, it's hardly surprising that The Concept Album has once again become fashionable, or that Prog Rock has resurfaced as a legitimate sub-genre. When I consider the music I've listened to in the past 12 months (an eMusic subscription of 50 downloads a month translates to roughly 60 albums a year, by my reckoning) it's the concept albums that stand out, because, frankly, a good concept is just about all an ambitious band can cling to. The National, My Morning Jacket, The Hold Steady, The Mars Volta ... hard workers and accomplished musicians, one and all. And thanks to their catchy concepts, I've developed the facility to identify their sound whenever I encounter it in public. But it takes me longer than it did in the "good old days."

Go back 25 years. Angus Young or Keith Richards only had to play a single note for the listener to think, "Ah: AC/DC!" or "The Rolling Stones!" These guys actually laid claim to their own guitar tone. Could that ever happen again? Should it? What guitarist in his or her right mind would attempt such foolishness?

No, best to stick with the concept, and cultivate the sound that works around it. And so I unsheathe my favorite album of the summer, I, Flathead by Ry Cooder. Cooder has spent his professional life exploring musical traditions -- typically roots, folk, jazz, or some combination thereof -- and doesn't mind exercising a little sonic experimentation within said traditions. His most memorable albums leave me with the impression that I've just heard a concept album, even if the concept has not been made explicit.

I think this is chiefly due to the voice Cooder fashioned for himself. Spin Ry Cooder's first disc and you encounter that voice: high, whiny and pungently self-assertive. "Prohibition's good if it's conducted right," concedes the singer in "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?" But it's a passive-aggressive statement, the sort of concession a whipped dog makes when it hopes it can get in one last really nasty bite before he ditches the scrap and runs for the hills:

Officers kill without a cause
Then they complain about the funny laws
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live?

Thirty-eight years later, the voice has become lower and gruffer, but remains elemental in its assertiveness: it's all five-o-clock shadow, drenched in Aqua Velva charm. Thirty years ago, that charm suggested a character with more years on his soul than the singer's body had endured. Now it suggests an irascible spark of youth, complete with mischief and a leaning toward irresponsibility that refuses to die out. The characters in these songs are still scrawny and slouched over, but they've got a bit of a beer-gut, and the fug of tobacco and axle-grease cannot be washed away. For these guys, the automobile is the vehicle into and through every aspect of life -- especially love and loss.

As ever, Cooder harkens back to days gone by, this time to that brief decade when vets from WW2 and Korea dealt with their Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders by dragging an old Ford into the Salt Flats to see how fast they could make it go. Cooder suggests romance, while eschewing nostalgia. Even his clods and buffoons bear hints of tragic underpinnings that add nobility to their quixotic quests. Throw in Cooder's unmistakable guitar tone, and the disc becomes the season's surefire winner.

But enough of my yakkin' -- go pick up the disc and give it a spin. Better yet, pick up the Deluxe Edition -- "featuring a shocking full-length false memoire, for those who can read!" -- just to give yourself some idea of how this seminal performer sticks to the shadows of his own imagination to keep his musical dreams gloriously alive. And while you're doing that, I believe I'll give Dr. Dog another spin.

Post-script: guess who just received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association? Yep -- these guys.


DarkoV said...

First, Congratulations of getting Jason and the Scorchers the LA Award. It just seems your constant haranguing about them on your blog got someone's attention. Well, at least that's the story I'm sticking with.
Second, Wow! What a great review and overview of Mr. Cooder. Love how you tie in the concept albums of old and the wet-behind-the-ear bands ones. Have you finished the memoire form I, Flathead? Gotta tell you, I dozed off quite a few times and never finished the short little booklet. But, as you so eloquently stated, the album is the summer bomb ("bomb" being the good kind).
Third, good luck with Dr. Dog. I must have played it 6-8 times, based more on understanding why my friend's teenage son loved the band than a liking of the album on my part. It's....o.k., IMHO, and that's stretching it. He's seen the band live a few times. It may be one of those phenomenons where you see a band. They're GREAT! You listen to their cd's with your ears mis-hearing the cd due to your inputting memories of the band. My perfect example? I love Southside Johnny in concert; his albums are generally dreck, mostly due to the lousy low-end production. They don;t do him justice. But...I still listen to them as in my mind's ear I hear him live. Go figure. The mind is a great place to waste.

Whisky Prajer said...

DV -- and thank you for the review link. Since subscribing to the magazine I've rarely checked in on its website. I suspect your thoughts re: a live performance enhancing the recorded one are probably correct. It's curious how, now that the stadium has been all but removed from the up-and-comer's scene, bands have to put in even more time playing dives. And this doesn't seem to be taken as a minus by most acts. "Catch us live, but don't forget to buy the album" seems to be the ruling motif.

As for Ry's "memoire" there ain't a lot of forward momentum in that baby. My expectations weren't especially high, mind you. I wonder if the book wasn't an exercise for Ry to get into character when he started writing the songs. Or maybe this was just a dreamscape he enjoyed inhabiting, and didn't want to leave just yet. Certainly whoever did the editing and proofreading did a super job.

And I doubt I'm ever going to be as excited about Dr. Dog as Mr. Sweet was.

CS said...

The high preist of tone. The wild eyed madman of the slide. He's the greatest slide player of our time, bar none. Don't be fooled by those with new fangled techniques playing behind the slide, slapping the strings, flayling away. This is the man. Listen to his work with John Haitt on Bring the Family or in Little Village. Nothing but soul and groove. Is this man really from Central California or was he transported here by aliens to show us how soul can be generated with just the slide of a glass bottle on 6 strands of metal wire.

Whisky Prajer said...

cs - Ry makes frequent mention of aliens in his "memoire"; you might be on to something.

I was fortunate to see Little Village play Massey Hall in the 90s. That had to be the strangest "rock" show I'd ever attended: no-one left their seats or even bothered tapping their toes. The Foursome played an excellent show, of course. The highlights of the program, however, were the individual works the musicians trotted out from their solo careers. Magic! Perhaps we were all too awestruck to stand up and dance?