Ry Cooder – The Prodigal Son (Fantasy Records)

Originally featured at www.13thfloor

Has one of the greatest guitarists found God or is he just borrowing a pew and a couple of psalm books? At 71, he may be getting on but going backwards to move forward has always been Ry Cooder‘s creative direction. New album The Prodigal Son might not be his best since the Buena Vista Social Club but it’s still damn good!

The Prodigal Son, his first LP in over six years, mixes Cooder originals with re-interpreted material from blues greats and unknowns such as Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Roosevelt Graves and the Stanley Brothers.

Make no mistake. This is an album of spirituals and gospel blues, many that have remained with Cooder since the start of his career. One such number is The Pilgrim Travelers’ gospel number Straight Street, which Cooder polished up a bit for this album.

The clunking-chugger Shrinking Man, a Cooder original, shows why ‘reverence’ is so importance in this decadent ‘Trump’ age. It’s recorded, like many others on this record, in a stark bluesy feel that puts you right back on the street corner of some decaying rust-belt township.

I loved the dry wit on Gentrification with lines about rich folks (the ‘Googlemen’) buying up the ghettos for trendy apartments. It’s also enhanced, like several other tracks on this album, by warm smooth-as-velvet male backing vocals that reminded me of the Blind Boys Of Alabama.

One of the re-worked tracks, You Must Unload, comes from Appalachian songwriter Blind Alfred Reed, who penned this white gospel social commentary way back in 1927. In it, he scorns “power-loving Christians in your fancy dining cars”, claiming that the only real way to heaven is to ‘unload’ all your all worldly goods. Cooder’s added a few extra lines for the benefit of all God fearing Republicans: “We see you drinking whiskey and smoking big cigars”.

While many of these songs are upbeat there’s also a couple of woeful ballads, too. One is a cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s classic, Nobody’s Fault But Mine, so stripped back to the swampy heat of a bayou prayer session.

Another stark number is I’ll be Rested When The Roll Is Called, which is pure spine-tingling church music. Finally, on the Heavenly Gospel Singer’s old tune Prodigal Son the band lets fly with pent-up twangy-grunge – unleashing the full power of a Depression-era worker’s blues.

So many of these songs are spirituals, old, new, invented or re-invented. With the help of guest musicians, including son Joachim and pedal steel player Ralph Mooney, Cooder’s managed to entwine ancient tales of redemption and street corner bible-bashing with his trademark slide guitar playing and his musicologist’s passion, bringing the lost and lonely past back into the future.



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