Album Review: Ry Cooder’s “Election Special”

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You might have noticed that this year is an election year. It's also 100th anniversary of the birth of Woody Guthrie. Ry Cooder's back with a new release, Election Special, that features nine new songs delivered with more than a hint of Woody's spirit. 

The protest song has always been part of the western folk tradition and is particularly important in our American song tradition, thanks to Guthrie. That tradition, however, is almost the exclusive domain of the left and this new collection of original songs is firmly in that camp.

Cooder's connection to American roots music, protest songs and to Woody Guthrie goes back to his earliest recordings. For the first 40 or so years of his recording career, Cooder was more of a musicologist than a songwriter, recording Guthrie's "Do Re Mi" and "Vigilante Man" and the songs of Leadbelly.

He also introduced many of his devotees to the songs of the then-unknown Bahamian growler Joseph Spence and the early jazz of Bix Beiderbecke.

Similar to Paul Simon's Graceland, which opened a world of South African sounds to western ears, Cooder did a similar feat, giving long-deserved attention to both the late and living masters of various genres.

Cooder's album Chicken Skin Music (1976) introduced not only the stylings of the Tex-Mex accordion king Flaco Jimanez to the uninitiated but also the artistry of Hawaiian slack key guitar giant Gabby Pahinui.

He continued on that path of cross cultural collaboration with the Malian blues artist Ali Farka Toure and most notably, with the Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club album and film, which reinvigorated the careers of numerous Cuban musicians from a bygone era.

Cooder released no solo recordings between 1987 and 2005, instead concentrating on writing movie soundtracks or working as an instrumentalist. 

With the release of Chavez Ravine in 2005, Cooder began a period of not only songwriting but writing political songs for concept albums. His 2011 contribution Pick Up Some Dust and Sit Down focused his wrath on Wall Street with songs like "No Banker Left Behind." 

Election Special (Nonesuch, 2012) takes on all things Right, from the Tea Party, the NRA and the Koch Brothers to new voter ID laws, immigrant scapegoating, the attack on reproductive rights and especially the Republican Party. It is sort of his personal State of the Union address, and in his view, things aren't looking very rosy.

Some say he's preaching to the choir and he probably is. I can't imagine Paul Ryan or Michelle Bachmann picking up a copy of the new CD.

Some reviewers object to the biased viewpoint, equating the lyrics to propaganda. Joseph Jon Lanthier of Slant writes that Cooder sounds "like a blowhard who's been listening to too many Pete Seeger LP's" and that he is "clearly singing and playing from his bleeding heart."

Still others object to the idea that well-heeled artists and celebrities have little credibility dabbling in amateur politics and climbing onto their soap box. There have always been critics of millionaires like Bruce Springsteen who speak for the disenfranchised and downtrodden everyman.

On the other hand, many of those artists believe it is not only their right but their responsibility and duty to use their voice for what they deem is a worthy cause. Whatever one's political leanings, it would be hard to doubt Cooder's sense of patriotic duty and urgency.

In an interview with the U.K.'s Guardian, Cooder described Mitt Romney as "a dangerous man. He's a cruel man. He's a perfect creation for what the Republican Party is all about. That is to say, a rapacious capitalist."

The album opens with "Mutt Romney," a satirical first "person" narrative by Seamus, the Romney's pet dog that was notoriously strapped to the roof of the family car.

Other subjects include the Republican platform in "Going To Tampa," and President Obama's frustration with the intransigent Right in "Cold Cold Feeling."

In the album's closing song, "Take Your Hands Off It," he sings about the loss of personal freedoms. The "It" in the title being the Constitution in the first verse, the Bill of Rights in the second, and on to voting rights, unions, reproductive rights and the people of the world. In that song, the aforementioned hands run the gamut from greasy to stinking, greedy, sanctimonious and lastly, bloody.

The loss of civil rights, the suppression of the vote and racial scare tactics are mentioned in nearly every song. Several times he equates the slogan "states rights" as code for a racist agenda. Jim Crow shows up in at least four songs. 

Mr. Cooder is as mad as hell, and he wants us to know and hopefully do something about it come November.

Much of the attention given to this new release has centered on the politically charged content. Putting that aside, musically, this new album is essentially a blues album. Ry Cooder may carry the activist torch of Woody Guthrie, but he plays with the licks of Bill Bill Broonzy, Elmore James and Muddy Waters.

Ever since his stint with Taj Mahal & the Rising Sons back in the mid-1960s, Cooder has been a blues man. He has proved to be many other things as well, but when he is writing and playing his own material, the blues idiom is his best template.

We get to the hear rocking, electric slide guitar work similar to his sound on John Hiatt's Bring the Family as well as his acoustic country-blues side.

The arrangements are spare, with Cooder accompanying his vocals on guitar, mandolin and bass and with tasteful support from his percussionist son, Joachim, providing a solid-but-loose groove. 

Ry Cooder's prowess on the guitar is formidable, hence his inclusion on Rolling Stone's list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time and the recognition from the Americana Music Association as the 2007 recipient of their Lifetime Achievement Award for an Instrumentalist. 

At 65, Ry Cooder isn't planning on retirement and obviously isn't satisfied or interested with resting upon his laurels.

When asked on the BBC's The Strand about his motivation for this new project, he responded by saying, "Martin Luther King used to say, do something if you can…if it is writing a speech or a book or singing or marching, do it when the need is there, so that's what I'm doing."