CD Review of My Name is Buddy by Ry Cooder

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My Name is Buddy
starstarhalf starno starno star Label: Nonesuch
Released: 2007
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As Alexander the Great discovered after conquering most of the known world, there's a lot to be said for taking a lifetime to reach your full potential. Boredom awaits the man with the prodigious talent and youthful zeal to accomplish his goals before his first prostate exam – and, in Ry Cooder's case, boredom awaits his listeners as well.

There were a lot of reasons for the nearly 20-year gap between 1987's Get Rhythm and 2005's Chávez Ravine, but more than anything, he seemed to have run out of things to say or places to go. This is understandable; between 1971 and 1987, and across ten studio albums, Cooder wandered restlessly across the musical landscape with singular abandon. An ardent musicologist, he proved himself adept from the beginning at connecting the dots between seemingly far-flung and disparate genres – on his first album alone, he covered Randy Newman, Woody Guthrie, and Leadbelly, and would soon go on to lead listeners from Oklahoma to Mexico to the Hawaiian sugar fields and back again.

This is why the long layoff between Ry Cooder solo albums was so painful – but also why it might have been better if he'd stuck to instrumental collaborations, Buena Vista Social Club albums, and film soundtracks. It was daffy as hell and tough to follow if you weren't paying close attention, but Chávez Ravine was also evocative; even if you weren't necessarily interested in the album's story arc (which included Dodger Stadium, UFOs, and the hard bootheel of eminent domain), Cooder juggled enough musical strains to keep things entertaining.

Now, two years later, comes another concept album, and it's sort of a doozy. Buddy the Cat follows three talking animals – Lefty the Mouse, the Reverend Tom Toad, and the titular feline – on a hardscrabble journey that will be familiar to anyone who's ever read Steinbeck. (For the unfamiliar, there's a lot of walking, a lot of going hungry, and a whole lot of racial injustice and economic inequity.)

Some listeners will bristle at all the leftist preaching in the lyrics, but those people clearly haven't been paying attention to Cooder's message for the last 36 years, and in any case, the preaching isn't what ails this album. Generally speaking, Buddy has two main problems, and they boil down to this: First, Cooder has covered this musical territory before, and better; second, he's using talking animals as protagonists.

It's the second item on the list that really sinks the album. Cooder can certainly be forgiven for retracing his musical footsteps; not only are these arrangements appropriate for the album's Dust Bowl ballads and worker's laments, but he's already more than proven himself capable of doing whatever the hell he wants, and Buddy strikes more of a comfortable groove than a dull rut. But why he felt it necessary to handcuff his message to an anthropomorphic fable is truly a mystery. Say what you will about chest-pounding flag-wavers like Toby Keith, but they understand the effectiveness of direct statements, and that's a big part of why Lee Greenwood will always be on the radio somewhere.

Put another way, there's nothing inherently awful about using animals – or any other proxy – to make your point, but there should at least be a reason for it. With My Name is Buddy, one gets the sense that Cooder just did it because he could, or because that's what it took to hold his interest. The album comes with a lovely booklet, and has its share of musical moments, but all in all, it feels like a middling, distracted echo of his formidable talent.

~Jeff Giles