CD Review of The UFO Has Landed by Ry Cooder
Recommended if you like
Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Clapton, Neville Brothers
Label
Rhino
Ry Cooder:
The UFO Has Landed

Reviewed by Mojo Flucke, PhD

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D
ive into this two-disc, four-decade Cooder retrospective compiled and produced by his son Joachim, and it becomes immediately clear why the guitar legend was never a superstar icon along the lines of Eric Clapton, even though he plowed some of the same furrows and even played on the Stones' Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers: He's just too good, too intelligent, too loyal to the roots of American music. Too much of a scholar of blues, reverent toward its traditions. There are no flashy, cheap pop anthems here, just "ain't it a shame that life's this way" John Hiatt-type stories populating Ry Cooder's verses. (Hiatt, in fact, shows up on the anthology, singing backing vocals on "Which Came First"). There are few slashing slide solos that will make one's blood pressure rise, just great bedrock blues rhythm tracks and understated solo breaks that leave the Hendrix bombast unsaid – but you know he would hold his own in a cutting contest if pressed to do it, to save his soul perhaps.

To his credit, Joachim did slip in several instrumental tours de force – including "Feelin' Bad Blues," a slide-infused, tremolo-drenched slow blues reminiscent of Robert Johnson's "Love in Vain" and a rendition of Skip James' "Cherry Ball Blues" – to remind us all that his dad can throw down some amazing licks when he decides to cut loose. "Feelin' Bad Blues" came from the soundtrack of the Ralph Macchio/Steve Vai film “Crossroads,” a fancifully moronic tale that introduced a whole generation of junior-high kids (such as me) to the blues. A fistful of other cuts on The UFO Has Landed came from Cooder's many other soundtracks, including the Wim Wenders classic “Paris, Texas.”Its instrumental theme, Cooder's recreation of Blind Willie Johnson's 1927 blues classic "Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground)," is here, too.

From start to finish, the selections here – spanning the years 1970 to 2008 – sound like a really, really good glass of port tastes, if that makes any sense: Rockin' blues with a slight bouquet of Texas/Cajun two-step and country mixed in to give it some character. Some feel-good populism mixed among the sad tales of interestingly flawed characters. Some Caribbean grooves mixed in, like in "Crazy 'Bout an Automobile" or "Why Don't You Try Me." The packaging on UFO Had Landed is lovingly immaculate, as we've come to demand from Rhino, loaded with essays and catalog numbers and "further listening" info. The photography and graphics will not leave fans – new and old – wanting for more.

While Cooder's never been up on the charts with the Claptons, or even the Kenny Wayne Shepherds of the world, give him his due: He laid the foundation for today's adult-alternative genre, which gives us lovely, earthy-country roots rock to tune into when our musical tastes evolve past the plastic hip-hop souljas of the top forty. His albums gave jam bands a blueprint – and permission – to go genre-diving, switching from country to rock to reggae to blues to Cajun as an eclectic celebration of our country's 20th century musical palette. To use accordions and tremolo pedals with abandon, and to throw out the digital technology lesser musicians use as crutches and to find their own voices hidden between the guitar strings. For that, Cooder deserves to be canonized on the Mount Rushmore of white blues rockers alongside Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray, Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Keef Richards.

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