Warner Bros (Reprise),1970
Review by Ian Foster
By the time of this eponymous debut solo album of December 1970, 23-year-old Ryland Peter Cooder already had significant musical experience playing with the likes of Captain Beefheart and Taj Mahal, and a reputation as an accomplished studio musician recording with artists such as Randy Newman, The Rolling Stones and Little Feat. Already renowned for his slide guitar, this debut album allowed him to find his feet as a vocalist and solo artist in his own right, and more importantly display his love of a wide range of American roots music, encompassing folk, blues, country,Tex-Mex and gospel; though undoubtedly here it is the traditional blues influence which comes through most strongly. What results from these diverse influences is what might now be referred to as ‘Roots Rock’; in this case Cooder’s earliest example of his own unique blend of these genres presented in what would become his own distinctive and inimitable style (and often in the presentation of other legendary musicians older musical standards).
Produced by Van Dyke Parks and Lenny Waronker, the album opens with Alimony, immediately establishing Cooder’s doleful, soulful vocals and distintive, staccato electric guitar. With a smattering of slide in the breaks, and accompanying (almost honky-tonk) piano and gospel backing vocals it’s a strong and engaging beginning.
Next up France Chance is an even more stripped down, back to basics arrangement of Mississippi Joe Calicotts’s standard, again displaying Cooder’s raw, distinctive guitar and bluesy vocal. One Meatball is a more orchestral arrangement, staying just on the right side of parody, it will undoubtedly put a smile on your face when you hear the lyric. What follows that is an electric (in every sense of the word) version of Woody Guthrie’s Do Re Mi; and you too will believe that paradise ain’t half as nice without it. An equally jaunty arrangement of My Old Kentucky Home is next; then side one of the album plays out with Blind Alfred Reed’s How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?; seemingly as relevant in 1970 as 1929 (and, perhaps, 2012).
Side two of Ry Cooder opens with his own up-tempo instrumental composition Available Space; a pure and perfect showcase for his guitar/slide playing, with its sparing piano accompaniment and basic percussion. This is followed by an arrangement of Huddie Ledbetter’s Pigmeat, as whimsical and doleful in equal measure as a New Orleans funeral. Arthur Blake’s Police Dog Blues is a jaunty but pure blues number, with bright fingerpicking accentuated with melodic harmonics and whining bends. John Estes Goin’ to Brownsville is Ry’s penultimate offering, before leaving us with a haunting version of Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Is The Night; the track’s sparse, signature slide guitar foreshadowing Cooder’s iconic soundtrack for Wim Wenders 1984 movie Paris, Texas.
Frank Bez’s beautifully evocative cover photograph of Cooder stood in front of the polished 1937 Airstream trailer on the dry bed lakebed of El Mirage with the overlayed neon title for me encapsulates perfectly the music therein. If you’re a fan of his later work, great guitar playing or American roots music; or just think that you might like to try it, you could do far worse than go back to where it all began for Ry Cooder as a solo artist in December 1970, and pick up Ry Cooder, Ry Cooder.
- France Chance
- One Meat Ball
- Do Re Mi
- My Old Kentucky Home
- How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?
- Available Space
- Police Dog Blues
- Goin’ to Brownsville
- Dark Is the Night