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Ry Cooder
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Ry Cooder

Left notes

Music | With partisan rants, Ry Cooder sounds more like a propagandist than an artist

Issue: "Dead heat," Sept. 22, 2012

Music fans, even those who don't pay attention to the 24/7 political-news cycle, can tell that it's an election year. For what other reason, for example, would Bruce Springsteen drag his increasingly tiresome Woody-Guthrie-on-steroids routine out for yet another tour if not to "rock the vote" one more time?

And "The Boss" is not alone. Consider, for another example, Ry Cooder.

"His most recent songs," wrote Lawrence Downes in a recent New York Times editorial lamenting the ineffectualness in contemporary musical protests, "are pure politics, torn fresh from the headlines . …"

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Downes is not entirely accurate. First, the 65-year-old roots-rocker's songs are pure leftist politics. Second, the best songs on his musically rich, ideologically impoverished last two albums (Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down and Election Special [both Nonesuch], respectively) wouldn't even be considered all that political in a context other than the one created by the songs that Downes cites.

Those quibbles aside, though, Downes is correct. More overtly contemporary political music than Cooder's is not being made.

That's a shame. By speaking only for Obama voters and against Romney voters, Cooder instantly reduces his audience by half. Also, any successful form of entertainment requires some element of surprise, and, frankly, there hasn't been anything surprising for decades in discovering that a guitar-playing singer-songwriter is liberal.

So when Cooder sings, "I got a cold, cold feeling that Jim Crow is coming 'round once more" (in the Romney/Ryan-derangement-syndrome "Cold, Cold Feeling") and "States' rights is his game, Jim Crow is his name" (in the Tea Party-derangement-syndrome "Going to Tampa") on Election Special, he's simultaneously hindering his aesthetic appeal with predictability and unwittingly echoing Joe Biden's recent declaration that rich, white Republicans are chomping at the bit to put black folks back in chains.

And speaking of black and white, life is never as simple as Cooder at his most partisan (which is most of the time these days) makes it seem. There's plenty of blame to go around for the mess in America. Cooder, by not recognizing as much and the musical richness of his latest offerings notwithstanding, comes off more like a propagandist than the artist that, one hopes, he still has it in him to be.

And sometimes he's still that artist. On Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down's amazing "John Lee Hooker for President," Cooder not only turns in the most foot-stompingly perfect John Lee Hooker impersonation ever but also stakes out a middle ground that it's actually possible to believe Hooker himself might've claimed. "I want everybody to know I'm strictly copastatic, I ain't Republican or Democratic," sings Cooder in a voice that could give aural blackface a good name. "I got a new program for the nation. It's gonna be groove time, a big sensation."

Give Cooder-as-Hooker this much: Such a platform sure beats tax and spend.

Harry's targets

Harry Shearer with Judith Owen
Associated Press/Photo by Chris Pizzello
Harry Shearer with Judith Owen

Joining Cooder in the election-year musical sweepstakes is the satirist Harry Shearer. His latest album, Can't Take a Hint (Courgette) features 10 acts (most notably Fountains of Wayne, Dr. John, and Shearer's wife Judith Owen) and in so doing guarantees sufficient musicality.

But, except for the bitingly clever, Madonna-skewering "Like a Charity," Shearer's targets-predatory priests ("Deaf Boys"), Sarah Palin ("Bridge to Nowhere"), Joe the Plumber ("Joe the Plumber") - are depressingly obvious.

Harrys who "give 'em hell" are an American tradition. But the "'em" isn't supposed to include the audience.

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