Over the past 40 years or so, guitar sideman, soundtrack composer, and solo artist Ry Cooder has quietly built an impressive record of uniformly excellent work, if surprisingly eclectic. Beginning his recording career at Warner Bros. Records in the early 70s, Cooder was given free rein to follow his muse, and assembled an early clutch of LPs that were as comfortable in exploring folk and blues as they were covering (and often creatively rearranging) pre-rock era chestnuts, gospel-tinged workouts, and early rock & roll.
Even early on, though, a perusal of Cooder’s early work finds him sympathetic to stories of the “common man,” and lately, in a resurgence of recording work as a solo artist, this has come to the fore in the last decade with song cycles such as Chavez Ravine (centered around a California Latino neighborhood), My Name is Buddy (Dust Bowl-era poverty and politicking), and the looser Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (reports from modern American life, including war, the depressed economy, bailouts, etc.). However, Cooder’s music isn’t weighed down by the heavy themes. If you read new interviews with him, clearly he’s angry about the direction of this country, but to his credit, he hasn’t sacrificed humor, the solid groove, and the excellent musicianship his records are known for.
The fictional and fanciful tales of the previous album are transferred to the modern political environment of Cooder’s latest, Election Special, naming names and pointing fingers at the current conservative movement with an array of “ripped from the headlines” tunes. The funky jangle of “Mutt Romney Blues” is narrated by Romney’s now-infamous dog Seamus. The sobering tall tale “Brother is Gone” imagines a meeting between the Koch Brothers and the Devil in a literally Faustian bargain. The protagonist of the jaunty “Going to Tampa” is on his way to the Republican convention, hoping to mingle with “distinguished friends” (“Gave all my money / Sarah Palin calls me honey”), even if his main goal is to “get my ashes hauled.” (Google it if you’re not up on early-20th century lingo).
Elsewhere, there are brief forays from the Obama camp; the appropriately brooding “Cold Cold Feeling” posits the President worriedly pacing the floors of the White House, considering the many roadblocks in his path, and the groove of “Guantanamo” belies its serious thoughts on its residents. But mainly, these are well-aimed (and learned and literate, as it happens) potshots at the right-wing. There may not be anything as playful here as the previous album’s “John Lee Hooker for President,” but these are serious times, and Cooder ‘s Woody Guthrie-like compositions are great examples of the modern protest song. If the other side cared to listen (doubtful), they might wonder how “liberal” became such a dirty word in their eyes. Here, it’s a badge of honor proudly worn.