In the 1970s, when musicians mining America’s rich musical history were a much rarer breed, Ry Cooder was a pivotal figure. If initially I was wary of artists plunging into roots music from bygone days, it wasn’t that I disliked the source. In the wrong hands, though, “historical authenticity” translates into dry or academic. Musicologists should write about music, but they should never play it.
Well, Ry Cooder ain’t no musicologist as I discovered the first time I dropped a needle on Paradise and Lunch. The sheer joy of music-making jumped right out of those grooves. On this record and all his early efforts it was easy to imagine someone with a huge and somewhat eccentric 78 collection who somehow distilled the essence of different musical styles that were currently out of vogue while adding his own touch. Later, a focus on world music proved commercially rewarding due to the surprise success of Buena Vista Social Club. His more recent California trilogy featured more self- penned songs while directing attention to social injustices that are part of the golden state’s history.
With Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down Ry Cooder adds 49 other states to his list of concerns and brings us up to the present. Politically he pulls no punches, which may anger you or inspire you, but even if you agree with every line the euphoria of hearing someone speak your mind wears off eventually. Springsteen’s The Rising and Neil Young’s Living with War seized the moment and stayed there. Will Pull Up quickly become a historical document?
Surely not. The songs are too durable for that, with many features that grace classic old Ry Cooder records, including his slide guitar and mandolin work, those wonderful gospel-sounding harmony vocals, and more fine accordion work courtesy of Flaco Jiminez. The opening cut, “No Banker Left Behind,” is a catchy number that sets the tone for much of the record with its deceptively breezy veneer but serious undercurrent; it so much evokes Depression Era lefty songwriting that it will have people checking the credits (all the songs are originals). “If There’s a God” rails against religious hypocrisy, but it’s perfectly danceable at the same time that it lets off steam. Both “Lord Tell Me Why” and “I Want My Crown” feature sludgy grooves and agitated vocals that call to mind Tom Waits circa Mule Variations.
What continually saves Pull Up from feeling like a pamphlet is its sense of humor, as when Ry channels a deceased blues master aspiring to America’s highest office on “John Lee Hooker for President.” “El Corrido de Jesse James” finds the famous outlaw comically powerless against forces too large for one man to battle, which seems to be how Ry feels at this point.
The record is also graced by storytelling that delves deeply into its characters. Full of longing and regret, “Dirty Chateau” and “Dreamer” are particularly effective in presenting the smaller picture. Rather than stand alone as anomalies on a record where subtlety often takes a back seat to big statements, these bittersweet songs deepen the sense of pathos overall. You can say that everyday people matter in your lyrics, or you can make us feel it— and Pull Up is a stronger record because Ry convincingly does the latter.