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Ry Cooder

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Ry Cooder; "Paradise and Lunch ", Warner Bros. MS2179.

   This fellow Cooder could go into business for himself if he would resolve to play what Cooder knows best and leave gospel to Aretha, humor to Henny and the metaphysics of love to Rod McKuen. And what is unadulterated Cooder? Well. Ry has a set of fingers that can do some decent guitar playing. And at the sides of his head are some mighty informed ears, familiar and at home with some gritty idioms. Mister Cooder also taps a pretty smart foot.

    The problem, though, is what he does with these tools. Apparently he decided to make this album a showcase of his idiomatic breadth. Unfortunately, the attempt is forced and illogical in spots. One is forced to ask: "Why. Ry?" Why a tune called "Mexican Divorce," conceptually week neither funny nor serious (áia Mr. Humorlessness par excellence, Kris Kristofferson), if not to prove merely that any joker with a marimba and the right percussion can sound south of the border. There are no new flavorings added. It is Polaroid reproduction.certainly like reality, but a little off-color and unmistakably one-dimensional. A couple of other Cooder impersonations include a mock gospel, devoid of either originality or the raw feeling that the real stuff achieves. I recommend Motor City Golden Gospel as an alternative.

   Ry continues his piracy with a raid on the old ragtime vaults in Eubie Blake's "Ditty-Wa-Ditty." Granted, Cooder gets some nice licks off and is aptly accompanied by the two-handed barnstorming of Earl Hines. But once again the question is forced to our lips: "Why, Ry?" To quote philosopher-musician Roland Kirk: Deal with it or leave it alone." Rework a tune; make it new or let it be. Otherwise it is nothing but a musical decathalon, unspecialized but effective.

    Now on the other hand, when Ry is right he's a real pleasure. This guy arranges background vocals like nobody's business, achieving the velvety texture of an old Coasters tune on "If Walls Could Talk." And when he means for you to sit up and listen to him pick a taste, you're in for some clean and personalized playing. "Tamp 'Em Up Solid" provides some of this straight ahead blowing in good measure, well supported by an unwavering rhythm section. Bobby Womack's "It's All Over Now" is redone here with a freshness that makes one forget the screaming version of the Rolling Stones.

     What I'm trying to get at is the fact that Ry Cooder's playing can be interesting and even inspired. But it does sound like about half of this album serves merely to fulfill the commercial obligation of the two-sided record. Half is good, though, damned good.

          ---David Weiss