Album Reviews

Ry Cooder – Election Special

(Nonesuch) UK release date: 20 August 2012

Ry Cooder - Election Special Sick of the American presidential race yet? With only 100 days to go, the long-winded slag-off-athon culminates in November’s vote with a fever-pitched battle between the politicians, hucksters, the common folk from obscure towns, and the snake-oil salesmen. And don’t forget the musicians. There is a long-standing ­ and flourishing – trade in penning songs or hitting the road to bash politicians.

Woody Guthrie did it way back in 1950 when he wrote Stetson Kennedy to help elect the Florida civil rights leader to the Senate. More recently, Bruce Springsteen toured in 2004 to raise money and derail George W Bush’s presidential re-election campaign. Ministry, Green Day and NOFX did the same, while Neil Young recorded anti-Dubya album Living With War. And then there was Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, who ruffled feathers in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. She admitted onstage at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire that she was ‘ashamed’ that George W Bush was from her home state of Texas. Ouch.

For the 2012 vote, the first volley is fired by Californian Ry Cooder. And like all of the artists above, it’s his good intentions that pave the road to bargain bin hell for his new disc. Considering that Cooder has spent the last decade generating some startlingly superb concept albums – from his Buena Vista Social Club project to Chavez Ravine – his Election Special should have been a homerun. Instead, it’s a Texas-sized strikeout.

The only highlight is the opener, titled Mutt Romney Blues, which parodies the Republican presidential hopeful’s unique way of taking his dog Seamus on holiday – by strapping the dog to the roof of his car. Sure, it was 30 years ago. And yes, the dog was at least in its cage. Nevertheless, the damaging tale is still wagging the tail of the media as Romney doggedly tries to play catch-up. But for Cooder, the story of Seamus and his heinous treatment is used to unleash a down-home tirade of tasty blues acoustic guitar licks and a foot-stomping backbeat as the gravelly-voiced singer hollers: “My boss Mitt Romney went for a ride/ Pulled up on highway side/ Tied me down up on the roof/ Boss I hollered woof woof woof”. So far, so entertaining.

Unfortunately it’s followed by the toothless Brother Is Gone, which attempts to serve as a skewering of satanic big-business and the ‘evil works of man’ with its mandolin riff and cheesy orchestral backdrop. And this time, the tongue-in-jowl humour is nowhere to be seen. The humourless anti-corporate sideswipe is then faithfully revisited on following track Wall Street Part Of Town. Bankers bad, common folk good, suggests the trusty retro-Americana electric guitar riff. And it gets worse on diddy Guantanamo with its handclaps and cringeworthy chorus: “You can’t come home/ from Guan-tana-mo”. Things look up briefly as Cooder attempts to channel the voodoo blues of Screaming Jay Hawkins on Cold Cold Feeling as a down-on-your-luck insight into the perils and pitfalls of being Commander-in-Chief. But it doesn’t last long before Cooder returns to the Dixieland pastiches to conjure up a man in overalls who’s gone to Tampa to attend the Republication convention. Ah shucks. But at least it contains an amusing reference to the Church of Latter Day Saints – a real challenge when it comes to a rhyme.

Ultimately, it all suffers from the same problem – that the message and the music are weak. It makes Cooder seem overly preachy, despite some first-class guitar playing, which makes the tunes come off second-best to the partisan grudge match. Meanwhile, the gulf between the biting tale of Romney’s canine conundrum and the rest of the album grows, suggesting it would have made a shrewdly-timed single. Instead, it’s a nine-song album, a campaign badge and a bumper sticker. But it’s not going to win many votes.

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Ry Cooder – Election Special
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Ry Cooder – Chávez Ravine