Pop CD of the week: Ry Cooder, Chavez Ravine

Pop CD of the week: Chavez Ravine is a semi-fictional account of a lost Los Angeles Hispanic neighbourhood told by some of its surviving musicians.

Ry Cooder

Chavez Ravine
(Nonesuch 79877)

Storytelling is an increasingly popular pastime among American musicians of a certain age and status. Bruce Springsteen's recent album, Devils and Dust, unveiled a series of narrators doing unBruce things such as visiting prostitutes and fighting. Neil Young put out a multimedia parable, Greendale, in 2003.

Better than either of these is Chavez Ravine, the latest project from Ry Cooder, the man who made the enduringly successful Buena Vista Social Club album and rejuvenated at least half-a-dozen Cuban musical careers.

Chavez Ravine is a semi-fictional account of a lost Los Angeles Hispanic neighbourhood told by some of its surviving musicians, in songs from the time, through new compositions by the Angeleno native Cooder and, astonishingly, by 90-something Frank Wilkinson, a municipal housing officer jailed for unAmerican activities in the Fifties when he tried to build some housing for the poor.

It's a poignant tale of corruption and pathos, a musical Chinatown or LA Confidential. The peaceable, if down-at-heel Latino enclave was bulldozed so that the Dodgers baseball stadium could be built.

If an album, half in English, half in Spanish, about how big money and crooked public servants destroyed hundreds of homes and lives sounds like a worthy exercise in American liberal breast-beating, it really isn't.

Chavez Ravine unfurls its story more sinuously than that, concentrating on how life was lived in Forties Chavez. There's a borderline-cheesy Lieber and Stoller song from the era, 'Three Cool Cats', witnessing the flirtations between three guys in zoot suits eyeing up potato-chip munching senoritas.

There's the haunting 'El UFO Cayó', in which a UFO flies in with a -warning of trouble to come, its theme sung deliciously by Juliette Commagere. Most fun of all is 'Chinito Chinito', a jolly strut through a Fifties tune by Felguerez Diaz, whose casual racism of the time (the Spanish lyrics poke fun at a Chinese laundryman) contrasts with its innocent exuberance.

Even the gruff ballad of the bulldozer driver, 'It's Just Work for Me', just about convinces, in blue-collar Tom Waits fashion. The angry 'Don't Call Me Red', meanwhile, showcases non-musician Frank Wilkinson, getting the last laugh at McCarthyism. 'I outlived those bastards after all,' he sings, sounding a little like Johnny Cash towards the end of his years.

The album's real stars, however, are the august musicians Cooder has made it a priority to resuscitate. You don't need any foreknowledge of Latino music to appreciate Lalo Guerrero's tale of two local boxers, 'Corrido de Boxeo', or enjoy 'Muy Fifi', which pits Ersi Arvizu (of the Sisters and El Chicano) against Little Willie G, who once fronted Sixties LA band Thee Midniters. Cooder got to Guerrero, acknowledged as the father of Chicano music, before he died last March, continuing his exemplary record of giving Spanish-language musicians a shot at the Anglo market in their twilight years.

According to Cooder, the entire Chavez Ravine project began with a series of photographs taken by Don Normark, in which Angelenos of the era got married, showed off their children or just passed the time. It's this respect for the texture of the past, the matter of factness in the lives of the ravine's inhabitants that Cooder is at pains to capture, throwing in a UFO craze here and a zoot suit riot there. Part musical memory box, part psycho-geographical treatise, Chavez Ravine is a terrific achievement and a joy to listen to.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Interview: Ry Cooder

Having brought the best out of bands from the Rolling Stones to Buena Vista Social Club, there's not much Ry Cooder doesn't know about contemporary popular song. Caspar Llewellyn Smith finds him on cranky form in his Santa Monica hangar.

Caspar Llewellyn Smith

04, Mar, 2007 @2:12 AM

Other pop, roots and jazz releases: Richard Swift | Tracy Thorn | Au Revoir Simone | The Bees | Ry Cooder | Wynton Marsalis

Richard Swift | Tracy Thorn | Au Revoir Simone | The Bees | Ry Cooder | Wynton Marsalis

11, Mar, 2007 @12:03 AM

CD of the week: Bruce Springsteen, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions

CD of the week: In contrast to The Rising, Springsteen's post-11 September album, the Boss and his band are hellbent on making a happy racket, says Kitty Empire.

Kitty Empire

29, Apr, 2006 @11:13 PM

Boss class

Bruce Springsteen's new album, Devils & Dust - his first for three years - is his darkest and most intimate to date and shows America's greatest rock performer moving into an ever deeper artistic maturity.

Sean O'Hagan

24, Apr, 2005 @2:34 PM

Her own boss

On the eve of the release of her second album, Patti Scialfa talks about her heritage and what it is like to live and raise children with Bruce Springsteen

Herpreet Kaur Grewal

13, Jun, 2004 @12:05 AM

CD of the week: Magic by Bruce Springsteen

CD of the week: Magic is the record that many Springsteen fans have been waiting for since 2002's The Rising, the last time Springsteen and his faithful E Streeters plugged in together, says Kitty Empire.

30, Sep, 2007 @12:02 AM

Article image
Peter Conrad on the return of Kylie Minogue

Next week, after a year battling against cancer, Kylie Minogue steps back into the spotlight. But which Kylie will she unveil? The former soap star turned uber-celebrity has endured countless reinventions over the past 20 years - often at the hands of men. Does she even know herself anymore? Here a fellow Australian analyses a cultural phenomenon, from Charlene to Showgirl.

Peter Conrad

09, Jul, 2006 @11:50 AM

Pop: Ne-Yo, Hammersmith Apollo, London W6

Pop: For sheer pop originality look no further than chart-topping US R&B man Ne-Yo

Kitty Empire

27, Sep, 2008 @11:01 PM

Review: The Breeders' Mountain Battles

CD of the week: The Breeders' Mountain Battles

Kitty Empire

05, Apr, 2008 @11:04 PM

The arts column: Amy went back to black but her imitators are all beige

The arts column: Obama has, uniquely for a politician, some sense of what's cool and what isn't.

Sean O'Hagan

24, Feb, 2008 @12:07 AM