"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Sunday, March 18, 2007



My Name is Buddy

Warner, 2,680 yen

Call it a folk opera, a roots song cycle or even a musical socio-political analysis of modern U.S. history--whatever label you stick on it, Ry Cooder's new concept album My Name is Buddy is an entertaining road trip into America's past.

Best known for his 1997 project (and the subsequent Wim Wenders film) Buena Vista Social Club, an attempt to preserve the music of prerevolutionary Cuba, Cooder is a keen musicologist who dabbled in African music on his Grammy-winning 1994 collaboration with Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure, Talking Timbuktu. He's also scored several films.

Artistically, My Name is Buddy picks up where Cooder's previous album Chavez Ravine left off. While that album used jazz, Latin-infused rock and pop and mariachi band music to tell the musical story of the Los Angeles barrio that was bulldozed to make way for Dodger Stadium, Buddy uses blues, rags, union anthems, bluegrass, dust bowl folk, country and roots rock to trace the history of the American progressive movement from the early days of the labor movement ("Strike"), through the Jim Crow era ("Sundown Town") and Red Scare ("Red Cat Till I Die") to the current frustration of those turned away at the polls in the most recent U.S. presidential election ("One Cat, One Vote, One Beer").

To keep things from getting too serious--the usual fatal flaw in political music--Cooder tells the whole story through a group of talking animals. The titular Buddy is a wandering cat who teams up with Lefty the mouse and the Rev. Tom Toad. One Internet wag at CD Universe aptly described it as "Woody Guthrie meets Beatrix Potter."

While there is anger in many of the songs, Cooder vents his frustration over injustice through not-too-subtle humor. Sings Cooder: "God help us J. Edgar, nothing's safe from you" in a song about a voracious hog named for a brand of vacuum cleaner.

Cooder wears his political heart on his sleeve--Karl Marx's Das Kapital is pictured on the inside cover of the accompanying booklet that provides the narrative context for each of the 17 songs.

Pete Seeger, the last of the great progressive activist-folksingers, plays banjo on the album and is feted alongside the legendary labor organizer and singer Joe Hill on the terrific "Three Chords and the Truth." Cooder and Seeger are joined by a number of guests including the Chieftains' Paddy Moloney, famed session drummer Jim Keltner, Van Dyke Parks and Flaco Jimenez.

If there is a weak spot in this hootenanny opus, it is that aside from some elegant country slide guitar on "Hank Williams" Cooder never really stretches out and delivers any of the scorching solos longtime fans might expect. While this will pass unnoticed by the casual listener and in no way detracts from the finished product, it is a little disappointing not to see the guitarslinger ranked No. 8 on the Rolling Stone list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time showing off his chops at greater length.


Hot Cakes: Live in Japan

P-Vine, 2,100 yen

When one thinks of funk, the first places that spring to mind are not Bournemouth, England or Tokyo, but P-Vine Records capture and release of Britain's fraternal funkateers' energetic Nov. 2006 performance in Japan's capital may put both cities on the list. Often reminiscent of the Meters, the Baker Brothers' jazzy old-school R&B sound is bound to put the cut in your strut, the glide in your stride and separate the funk from the junk. This disc is an instant party.

(Mar. 17, 2007)

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