RY COODER Chávez Ravine (Nonesuch/Perro Verde)
Presumably it would take an inspiration of some significance to end the 18 year wait for a new solo Ry Cooder album, and Chavéz Ravine finds its source in the views of the eponymous neighbourhood, uncovered by photographer Don Normark. Hiking up into the Los Angeles hills in search of a good view, he remained amongst the Mexican-American community he found there for a year, his stay cut short when the residents were uprooted and their houses bulldozed, to make way for a new Dodgers baseball stadium. Cooder elaborates and interweaves this basic premise with some more and less factual elements, focussing in on individuals on both sides of the story and introducing a friendly, farseeing alien and his UFO.
Chávez Ravine gently but emphatically combines the soundtrack and musicological work that has occupied Cooder in his years away from solo activity. Still not a prolific songwriter himself, this long-form narrative has been assembled from collaborations and punctuated by adapted and adopted music of the period it describes, with contributions from its original performers who, in several cases, responded to Cooders invitations only a short time before the reaper came calling. Any gaps in the storyline not covered by the songs whose lyrics are presented in both English and Spanish, irrespective of the sung language are smoothed by Cooders annotations in the sumptuous, scene-setting booklet. Musically, Chávez Ravine has the flavour of Chicken Skin Music, albeit yet more elaborate and multilayered.
The smoky opening to Poor Mans Shangri-La suggests Steve Reichs Electric Counterpoint given a humanising, Hawaiian touch, and on similar territory the slowly flexing El U.F.O. Cayó evokes The Orbs Spanish Castles In Space. Its Just Work For Me, written from the perspective of a bulldozer driver sent to flatten the township, does creepy, insect-like slow-scurrying things not normally heard coming from guitar, bass and drums. The gently nostalgic, music-box reverie that opens and closes In My Town is shattered by the stench of evil, insidious corruption, signalled by the deployment of the motif from Griegs In The Hall Of The Mountain King. The album is at its most touching on 3rd Base, Dodger Stadium, which illustrates the lasting legacy of Chávez Ravine in the way old-timers refer to their former homes in terms of the locations in the stadium built on top of them. Finally, Soy Luz Y Sombra closes the album, a traditional poem set to sumptuous music that could be by Chicano Cocteau Twins.
Chávez Ravine announces itself modestly on the cover as a record by Ry Cooder. Its far more than that, even given the delights that records by Ry Cooder have proffered before now. Its a feast for the senses, a treasury of moments and an inclusive, significant whole.