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Ry Cooder - My Name is Buddy

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Artist: Ry Cooder

Album: My Name is Buddy

Label: Nonesuch

Review date: Jul. 20, 2007

Master guitarist Ry Cooder is best known for his re-inventions and transmissions of vintage roots genres, beginning with American country, blues and regional styles, then branching out into Cuban music from the 1950s. But Cooder has always seemed an L.A. boy at heart, and a filmic sensibility – romantic and narrative, sonically evocative and visually informed – has often suffused his presentation of nearly-forgotten styles. Cooder's experience and skill in composing for the movies has only deepened that vein, and his latest song-oriented work has a storytelling sweep worthy of 1930s-’40s Hollywood.

My Name is Buddy is a strange-but-engaging secret history of hard times for working people in America. The storyline, such as it is – Involving, among others, a traveling cat named Buddy and a pig named J. Edgar Hoover – seems mostly set in Depression-era California, but it ripples out beyond into modern times. Altogether, shot through as it is with humor and hope amongst the hard times, My Name is Buddy might have more in common with Preston Sturgis' under-appreciated film Sullivan’s Travels than it does with John Ford's stark and celebrated Grapes of Wrath.

Cooder's use of American vernacular music here is almost too dizzying to describe: blues, old-timey country, jazz , and Tex-Mex Norteno are just the beginning, with guitars, banjos, fiddles, accordions and mandolins arrayed and locked into clean, tight arrangements. Delta bluesmen, itinerant Okie bands, and Mexican border singers are channeled, bringing alive a sense of boom and bust pre-World War II California, from the agricultural lands of the central valley and into L.A. and the desert. Cooder – along with some guest vocalists – sings mostly in the voices of various characters, spinning coded messages about commies and bosses and Wobblies and poll taxes; about the closing of aircraft factories; about whiskey and jukeboxes. It's impossible not to notice that hard luck stories like these are part of our times, too.

The album's centerpiece might well be "Three Chords and the Truth,” where, over a distorted Memphis-Arkansas groove, Cooder delivers in a Levon Helm-like voice stories about Joe Hill and Pete Seeger and musicians singing their consciences. (It goes beyond name-checking: Seeger actually plays banjo on the record.) On the jazzy "Green Dog,” Cooder croons coolly, in a hipster voice somewhere between Chet Baker and Bob Dorough, about an alien encounter in the desert. The alien – Juliette Commagere, purring out her lines in a lovely gloss on the melody of "Misty" – turns out to be a beatnik-type seeking poetry and exotica. Cooder steers her toward Hollywood.

The album closes on an up note. "Farm Girl,” riding along sweetly on muted Curtis Mayfield-esque guitar, is about friendship and generosity. "There's a Bright Side Somewhere" is a gentle – yet powerful gospel – rooted affirmation. Cooder's vocal affectations and characterizations slip off to reveal a heart-felt soulfulness; his slide guitar solo is elegant and goose-bump raising, and the sensitivity among the backing musicians – drummers Jim Keltner and Joachim Cooder in particular – is revealed as the arrangement falls away to its bare bones. It seems that along with the bone and gristle to be found in the meat of Cooder's message about America, there's a marbling of hopeful optimism, too.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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