It has been a decade since the arrival of an album credited solely to Ry Cooder, but the guitarist-composer hasn't exactly been lying around. Cooder can take credit for turning the world at large on to not only Cuban music, but also world music. Before he resurrected pre-Cold War Cuban nightclub music with "Buena Vista Social Club" (1997), he introduced listeners to blues guitarist Ali Farka Toure of Mali with 1995's "Talking Timbuktu" and to Indian classical string player V.M. Bhatt with "Meeting by the River" (1993).
The unexplored territory Cooder brings to light on "Chavez Ravine" is California's Mexican-American culture of the late 1940s and '50s, inspired in part by Don Normark's book of photographs of the same name. Chavez Ravine was a Los Angeles Chicano neighborhood brimming with clubs and theaters that was razed to make way for Dodger Stadium. Cooder's recounting of that event adapts specific musical styles of the time and even incorporates period music.
Though Cooder plays (and occasionally sings) on all but one of the 15 tracks, he has essentially directed the album by casting various singers and musicians in specific roles. After Cooder opens the album and sets the scene with "Poor Man's Shangri-La," he turns the mic over to Little Willie G., AKA Willie Garcia of the east L.A. band Thee Midnighters, for "Ondo Callejaro." The tune's lovely and jaunty melody contrasts with its Spanish lyrics as they recount the Zoot Suit riots of 1943, which began when U.S. sailors descended on the neighborhood to beat up the flashily attired homeboys.
The album's most memorable voice is that of Lalo Guerrero, the pachuco singer known in the 1940s as the Voice of the Barrio. He sings new versions of his 1949 hit "Los Chucos Suaves," and "Barrio Viejo," a song about the Tucson neighborhood where he lived after the Ravine was no more. Guerrero, who died soon after the album was completed, also performs a new song, "Corrido de Boxeo," about two brothers who boxed at the old Olympic Auditorium.
"Chavez Ravine" closes wistfully with "3rd Base, Dodger Stadium," in which a stadium car parker recalls the old neighborhood, and "Soy Luz y Sombra," a song of spiritual renewal. Though Cooder's song cycle would be ripe for a theatrical presentation, it is just about perfect exactly as it is. If there's a better, more ambitious, more purely listenable album this year, I can't wait to hear it.
'HUMMING BY THE FLOWERED VINE'
When a little-known musician gets raves early in her career from the likes of Elvis Costello and the late, great BBC DJ John Peel, you'd best take notice. Contemporary country vocalist Cantrell is capitalizing on that cult-hero acclaim with her third release, an exquisite collection of originals and covers that's evocative and intoxicating from start to finish.
Lucinda Williams is probably the first person you'll think of when you hear Cantrell's bell-clear voice, so it might not be a coincidence that she honors her musical mentor by covering Williams' "Letters." The album's title comes from "Bees," a tune written from the perspective of a dying person who mourns: "I miss the bees/I miss the honey/I miss them humming by the flowered vine."
Accompanied by a crew of top-drawer musicians, including members of Americana bands Ollabelle and Calexico, Cantrell has delivered an album filled with longing and reflection that goes right to the heart.
'BEYOND THE SOUND BARRIER'
Wanye Shorter Quartet
"Beyond the Sound Barrier" documents the maturation of the quartet led by Wayne Shorter, the influential if enigmatic composer and saxophonist who in the last decade has added a New Testament of brilliant music-making to accompany his Old Testament innovations from the '60s. The biggest news in this live recording is that the band -- with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade -- sounds more tightly focused than earlier.
The rhythm section's swirls of harmonic and rhythmic abstraction remain, but there are fewer passages of amorphous meandering, and greater weight and groove. Shorter's soprano solos are particularly fertile in the way they snake orchestrally through the music, with beguiling rhythmic rhymes that sometimes echo from track to track like a suite. The repertoire is winning, including the non-standard standard "Smilin' Through" (1919) by Arthur Penn, a song by Mendelssohn and lots of Shorter, including a stretched-out "Joy Ryder" that almost steals the record.
'DANCE OF THE INFIDEL'
Meshell Ndegeocello Presents Spirit Music Jamia
Well, give her credit for trying something new, even if it falls mostly flat. Funk-soul bassist-vocalist Ndegeocello (for the uninitiated, that's en-DAY-gay-o-CHEL-o) risks alienating her fan base big time with this too-often formless, tedious, half-baked jazz jam session that for long stretches goes nowhere fast.
Her last album, "Comfort Woman," was also a stylistic departure, a trip into the realm of electronica that maintained some sense of structure and stayed just this side of self-indulgent. No such luck on "Dance of the Infidel," which largely wastes the talents of such stellar jazzmen as Don Byron, Oliver Lake, Kenny Garrett and Wallace Roney. Case in point are the 11-minute-plus tracks "Al-Falaq 113" and "Papillon," colossally dull offerings in dire need of melodies, cohesive arrangements and, above all, an editor. It's also difficult to imagine many listeners embracing an album that has Ndegeocello performing no vocals and playing bass on only half the tracks.
"BLAME THE VAIN"
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On his first outing without longtime producer Pete Anderson, Yoakam indulges his appetite for experimentation, but never strays far from his signature sound: rockabilly and hard-core hillbilly tunes tempered by the occasional swell ballad. The veteran singer-songwriter, whose country hit-making days are far behind him, has an Elvis moment on "When I First Came Here," heads for the creative edge on "She'll Remember" (a mix of synth pop and honky-tonk with a spoken-word intro that summons the spirit of the Talking Heads) and rounds things out with a couple of those killer ballads: "Just Passin' Time" and heartbreaker "The Last Heart in Line," the latter accented by aching, lovely strings and horns.
The rock-edged title song and weepy "Does It Show" sound a little familiar and formulaic, but, heck, everyone should have a formula as compelling as Yoakam's.
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