Ry Cooder records are never about Ry Cooder. Yet his new album, "Chavez Ravine," may be the musician's most personal work to date.
It's a moving, musically rich requiem for a vanished neighborhood near the center of Los Angeles once inhabited by Mexican immigrants and working-class Mexican Americans. In the '50s, they were evicted en masse from homes that were then bulldozed to the ground and covered with concrete. For what? To make way for the construction of Dodger Stadium, which would spirit a legendary baseball team away from Brooklyn. Fans traveled to games along the new Pasadena Freeway, which cut through the heart of the old community.
To use a sports analogy, Cooder's recent, most commercially successful work -- championing traditional Cuban music under the umbrella of the Buena Vista Social Club -- was an away game. "Chavez Ravine" is a home game, illuminating the neighborhood's varied music styles, but particularly the Chicano influence. For that, Cooder turned to pioneering Chicano artists Lalo Guerrero and Don Tosti, who were both in their eighties when Cooder began work on the album in 2001. Both men died before the album's release, Guerrero just two months ago.
With 15 songs (some in English, some in Spanish) unfurling over an unhurried 70 minutes, "Chavez Ravine" taps into two of Cooder's strengths: a lifelong affinity for ethnic and roots music, and mastery of the storytelling soundtrack. "Chavez Ravine" is certainly cinematic, its drama unfolding against a backdrop of McCarthy-era dirty politics, police corruption, Anglo attacks on pachuco culture and greedy real estate barons. It offers a mix of characters, some imagined (the slang-talking "space vato" hepcat who acts as observational chorus) and some real (idealistic city planner Frank Wilkinson, whose original plans to build low-income public housing there were crushed by politicians fearful of being branded communists for supporting "progressive" social actions).
Cooder committed himself to telling this story after seeing a gallery show of photos by Don Normark, who in 1949 spent a year chronicling Chavez Ravine, never suspecting it would soon disappear. Yet as angry as Cooder may be about what happened there, his "Chavez Ravine" is a celebratory work, from the swaying evocation of the opening "Poor Man's Shangri La" -- the equivalent of a film's establishing shot -- to new versions of Guerrero's 1949 dance hit "Los Chucho Suaves" (with its "cool pachucos" dancing the rumba, guaracha, botecito and danzon), Tosti's "Chinito Chinito" and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's slinky celebration of "3 Cool Cats." The last is sung by Willie G of Los Angeles's Thee Midniters, who wrote or co-wrote many of the lyrics, including "Muy Fifi," a genial, earthy mother-daughter exchange about fashion and propriety.
Testimony to Cooder's commitment is the fact that he sings several songs himself (his first recorded lead vocals since 1988's "Get Rhythm" album), while also contributing more of the evocative guitar work he usually saves for soundtracks. Cooder does some vocal manipulation to distinguish among characters who include embattled city planner Wilkinson in "Don't Call Me Red"; a racist developer in "In My Town" (sounding Randy Newmanish in such caustic braggadocio as "I write the rules, I call the game / There's the pitch, it's good . . . there goes your old neighborhood"); and the unapologetic bulldozer driver who insists "It's Just Work for Me" in a gruff voice reminiscent of Tom Waits.
Other highlights include "Onda Callejera," about the 1943 pachuco riots ignited by off-duty soldiers, and the ethereal "El U.F.O. Cayo," with Tosti as the space vato warning Ravine residents of their impending doom, and Juliette Commagere (of the electro-blues band Vagenius) mournfully countering that "none of us believed him / we live in America / we are landowners with rights / in this place where we were born."
The most memorable track is "3rd Base, Dodger Stadium," evoking the depth of loss by associating old homes and treasured memories with various locations within the ballpark. Sung with melancholy grace by Hawaii's Bla Pahinui, it's a haunting homage to what Cooder calls "just a place you don't know, up a road you can't go / just a thought, laid to rest."
But not forgotten.