Ry Cooder Chavez Ravine

[Nonesuch; 2005]

Styles: Latin jazz, Latin folk, blues
Others: Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Buena Vista Social Club

When last we heard from Ry Cooder, he was picking up a Grammy for his work spearheading the Buena Vista Social Club project that painted an aural portrait and resurrected the lost dreams of Cuban musicians prior to Castro's takeover in the early '60s. For that project, Cooder could create a documentary simply by letting the musicians play their songs. His job as the organizer was only to bring the music to life, and the energy put out on that record shows his wonderful gift for that.

Five years later, Cooder has released another project attempting to chronicle the life of a since-forgotten and destroyed institution -- the LA suburb formerly known as Chavez Ravine, where Dodger stadium now lies. True to form, Cooder has mined influences who saw Chavez Ravine like Little Willie G. and the Commagere Sisters, and two original songs of Lalo Guerrero, who passed away just after recording was complete. This time, though, Cooder had the much more difficult task of recreating a place through music.

To say that he has been successful in his endeavor is probably irrelevant. Cooder obviously brought so much energy for authenticity and regaining the lifeblood of his topic that the resulting work stands far greater than a recorded album. It hits very close to musical documentary with very few of the abstraction perils that usually haunt artists in converting ideas to their medium. Through each of the Latin-flavored tracks, the album rhumbas, bops, and tangos along to its eventually simple conclusion: Despite the abject conditions that its inhabitants faced, Chavez Ravine existed with bustling and blooming life, but it no longer does.

There are borrowed songs, like the roaring "Los Chucos Suaves," and the folk ballad "Onda Callajera" which accurately place the music within the Mexican immigrant suburb. But those are simply placeholders for Cooder's simultaneously biting, gripping, and wry (no pun intended) original material. The entire saga finds its center at "3rd Base, Dodger Stadium," the account of a Dodgers employee whose old house was on the site of Dodger Stadium's infield. The delivery of the song is equally rousing and heartbreaking, stumbling right to the heart of the matter. Coming straight from the roving blues tradition, "It's Just Work for Me" sounds like it could be just as at home in the Southern fields or Midwestern mills. Cooder's spare, repetitive guitar lines are filled with as much longing as the narrator.

Also making various appearances are radio broadcasts direct from the red scare, zealous young men looking for "three cool chicks," and some Costa Rican folk music to close the album with "Soy Luz y Sombra." This is the type of album where the huge amount of liner notes needed to give any context are just as important as the actual work itself. Once locked into the music, though, all you may have to do is close your eyes and envision the sweat dripping from your arms on a sunny southern California afternoon, and you'll be right in the thick of it.

1. Poor Man's Shangri-La
2. Onda Callejera
3. Don't Call Me Red
4. Corrido de Box Eo
5. Muy Fifi
6. Los Chucos Suaves
7. Chinito Chinito
8. 3 Cool Cats
9. El U.F.O. Cayo
10. It's Just Work For Me
11. In My Town
12. Ejercito Militar
13. Barrio Viejo
14. 3rd Base, Doger Stadium
15. Soy Luz Y Sombra

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