REVIEW: Ry Cooder’s “The Prodigal Son” is Incisive Commentary

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Ry Cooder’s first album since 2012, The Prodigal Son (Fantasy Records), thrives on antinomies.  Using covers of old, old songs, Cooder has constructed one of the year’s most incisive musical commentaries on our current political climate.  Working with his son, Joachim, on production, Cooder gives the original songs on The Prodigal Song an old-time feel, and he makes the old songs he covers feel new.

Those familiar with Ry Cooder know that he is a man of strong opinions.  Text materials accompanying the release of The Prodigal Son include the anecdote of a how he received his first guitar from a musician friend of the family who was blacklisted.  One can surmise that Cooder grew up in a left-wing environment, and those views have never changed. During the George W. Bush years, he told the president to “shove it up his Crawford, Texas ass!”

Cooder is less vulgar and going about a different purpose here.  Using his exhaustive knowledge of the American songbook, Cooder is trying to reveal the truth behind American ideals, many of them explicitly Christian ideals.  Blind Willie Johnson’s “Everybody Ought To Treat A Stranger Right” speaks to the ethos of helping the less fortunate, and Alfred Reed’s “You Must Unload” speaks to the evils of materialism.

We only get a few originals here, but they are gems.  “Shrinking Man” and “Gentrification” use humor and the construction of old-time jaunty blues to pack a real punch.  You wouldn’t think that the absurd title premise would get you to child sweatshop labor and starvation wages in farming, but somehow, it does.  “Gentrification” had the funniest line I’ve heard in quite a while:  “I heard the Googlemen drink so much coffee, I think they might drown.”

Maybe you don’t share Cooder’s politics.  Even if you don’t, you can still appreciate this album.  I often approach self-produced albums with lowered expectations, but Ry and Joachim Cooder made an album that sounds absolutely spectacular.  They also handle most of the playing duties: Ry plays guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin, and keyboard; Joachim plays drums and percussion. On “You Must Unload,” Aubrie Haynie plays violin and Robert Francis plays bass.

Since this is a Ry Cooder album, it goes without that saying the guitar playing here is phenomenal.  Cooder’s guitar work has always been superb. As he’s entered the mature phase of his artistic career, he’s really come into his own as a writer, as an original voice.  A musician with few peers, he’s used his vision to create a bold, stunning interpretation of the American songbook that will challenge and reward listeners, and be a delight for them to hear.  

See for yourself, here http://rycooder.com/.

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