What does it sound like?:
The album opens with a simple strummed mandolin introduction; and then the warmest sweetest vocal Ry Cooder has given in years as he launches into the Pilgrim Travellers 1950s gospel song ‘Straight Street’. Son Joachim comes in with some gentle drums, and, glory be, there’s the great team of Bobby King and Terry Evans (who has sadly died since this recording) together with Arnold McCuller with perfectly weighted backing vocals. It’s Cooder, it’s King and Evans, it’s a revived old American classic you’ve never heard before, and all’s right with the world.
The album is full of stuff like this. Cooder established himself in the early 70s as a one man curator and rediscover of American folk, blues and country song, and here he is doing it all over again.
There are two Blind Willie Johnson songs from the 20s and 30s. ‘Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right’ Has a wonderfully funky groove with superlative slide guitar, and backing vocals perfectly locked in. ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ is funeral in pace; it’s dark and full of foreboding and fear, and as powerful a version as I’ve ever heard.
The title track and Rosetta Sharpe’s In His Care are irresistible driving gospel blues tracks in which King, Evans and McCuller excel themselves.
I’d never heard ‘You Must Unload’ before. Apparently it’s by Alfred Reed who wrote How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live, perhaps Cooder’s finest cover. This is similarly wonderful: a stern warning about jewel wearing, whiskey drinking Christians’ chances of getting to heaven, leavened by a sweet tune and some lovely fiddle. Blind Roosevelt Graves’ I’ll be Rested When the Roll is Called is another upbeat gospel tune from the 20s featuring Cooder on banjo. ‘Harbor of Love’ is a bluegrass Stanley Brothers song which Cooder turns here into a lovely wistful slow ballad with gorgeous slide guitar.
His own songs hold up well in this company. ‘Shrinking Man’ is a glorious loping racket of drums, slide guitar and wry vocals. ‘Gentrification’ features a puzzled narrator wondering why on Earth Johnny Depp and the Googlemen are buying up property in his run down area of town. In ‘Jesus and Woody’ Cooder gives us a simple affecting vocal over ringing acoustic guitar, and has both dreamers standing up against the vigilante man and the engines of hate. All three songs could be old songs about the past; all three are clearly about right now.
The musicianship, as you’d expect, is wonderful throughout. It has impeccable playing, and the looseness of a band playing live. both Cooders are at the top of their games, as are the vocal trio.
I can’t tell you how happy this record makes me feel. Wonderful songs, some of them almost a century old, performed with love, and immense skill and made utterly alive and contemporary. It’s just fantastic.
What does it all *mean*?
This album stands up for these singers and writers of the past, many of them poor and black. It honours them, and honours what their songs stood for, and by definition it’s as clear a rejection of Trump’s America as you could get.
Cooder is 71; he’s done it all, he’s hardly put a foot wrong throughout his career, and he’s still got the ability and desire to make a record like this. What a guy!
Goes well with…
An old porch, bottle of bourbon and a love of the blues.
Might suit people who like…
Paradise and Lunch, Boomers Story or any of those great Cooder 70s albums.