Since the mighty Chavez Ravine, Ry Cooder's albums have struggled to reach equivalent heights, as if their themes – and with Cooder, there is always some over-arching theme – just didn't provide the fire-power required.
So it's a relief to report that Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down is his best effort by far since Chavez Ravine – albeit something of a double-edged relief, in that if the theme of "simple tools for citizens under siege" is strong enough to drive an entire album, it must mean we're in a deeper hole than we thought. Cooder here takes the theme of the New Depression quite literally, offering what are in effect the modern-day equivalent of the kind of dust-bowl ballads with which Woody Guthrie once hymned the poor and skewered the wealthy. The opening track, "No Banker Left Behind", hits its target squarely on the chin, with a sardonic singalong attack on our era's most deserving folk-devil set to banjo and mandolin over the jaunty military snare of Cooder's son Joachim.
From there it's a dark parade of familiar Cooder figures, from the illegal immigrant hunted down by vigilantes in the raw, rocking "Quick Sand", to the "Judas men" usurping justice in favour of oil barons and Republicans in "I Want My Crown", delivered in Satanic growl over a too-tasty rumba-rock groove. But almost everywhere one looks, Cooder finds a new twist on these old rivalries. The inhabitant of "Dirty Chateau" regrets the way his feckless ways drove away the immigrant maid he had come to adore; in the stark, Lightnin' Hopkins-style slow blues "Baby Joined The Army", a father laments his daughter's enlisting in the army, a theme usually hidebound by masculinist presuppositions; and most startling of all, the Tex-Mex two-step "Christmas Time This Year" is the kind of Christmas song they won't be playing on the radio, with the rollicking accordion and guitar disguising lyrics in which the war wounded ask for "two good arms so I can hold my kids", and the President gets told to shove his war up his "Crawford, Texas ass".
Elsewhere, "Lord Tell Me Why" uses a rolling funk groove and gospel vocals to carry the anxious queries of a poor, law-abiding white man afraid to walk home at night, and "If There's A God" references Leadbelly's "Bourgeois Blues" in its satirical account of a government bill restricting access to the afterlife to the wealthy. God himself appears in "Humpty Dumpty World" to vent spleen against television, over an engagingly brusque reggae groove studded with marimba. Things are brought to a tear-stained conclusion in "No Hard Feelings" with a lowly "jackass prospector" scolding businessmen for viewing the land in purely business terms, philosophically musing that "you're just a ripple on the shifting sands of time". In the accompanying lyric booklet, the photo of the old "jackass prospector" in question, it transpires, is of one Howard R Cooder: this isn't just politics, one realises, it's personal.
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