Three years in the making, Chavez Ravine: A Record by Ry Cooder, is his first "solo" offering since 1987's Get Rhythm. In addition, it is a concept album; but don't be afraid. It documents in mythical style the disappeared Los Angeles neighborhood of Chavez Ravine, a Mexican-American district that fought over by real etate developers, urban planning activists and city government. It was bulldozed in a sleazy deal was cut and it was razed order to erect a stadium that woiuld lure Walter O'Malley's Brooklyn Dodgers to L.A. Cooder's work has almost always concerned itself with what has been left out, marginalized, or relegated to the place of memory; it was inspired by a book of black-and-white photographs of the area by Don Normark. Over the course of its 15 songs Cooder poignantly, yet warmly, sets out to portray the flavor of the place, times, culture, chaos, and corruption of post-war Los Angeles. Here UFOs, the Red Scare, the Pachuco Scare, boxers, cops, hipster "cool cats," ordinary folks, race politics, class war, the radio, J. Edgar Hoover, baseball, and of course musicians, slip in and out of this steamy, dreamy, seamless mix that evokes an emotional palette rich and complex. The tunes range from boxy corridos, Latin swing numbers, guarachas, Afro-Cuban sons, smoky polkas, moody atmospheric pieces, riotous good-time Pachuco boogie, rootsy rock, Costa Rican folk songs, and R&B tunes. Heroes and villains come and go in this panorama, all winding around in the little neighborhood where people hang out, sing, dance, make love, struggle and sweat for a better life in the American Dream. Sung in Spanish and English, Cooder sought out musicians from the era and the place, including the late Pachuco boogie boss Don Tosti, the late legendary Lalo Guerrero (the guiding force and spirit of the album who also passed away after contributing), Ersi Arvizu, and Little Willie G., all of whom appear with Joachim Cooder, Juliette & Carla Commagere, Jim Keltner, Flaco Jimenez, Mike Elizondo, Gil Bernal, Ledward Kaapana, Joe Rotunde, Rosella Arvizu, and others. "Poor Man's Shangri-La," is a finger-popping rhumba where the extraterrestrial Space Vato beams down in a UFO to check out the 'hood to the sounds of Little Julian Herrera on the radio. Little Willie G. and the Commagere Sisters offer the lilting "Onda Calljera," a folk song documenting a war between locally stationed military and pachucos. Chavez Ravine is an intricately woven web of covers including "3 Cool Cats," by Leiber & Stoller, Guerrero's "Corrido de Boxeo" and "Barrio Viejo," and originals like the cinematic "Don't Call Me Red" (where the taped voices of Frank Wilkinson, Jack Webb, and Raymond Burr all dialogue intensely about the FBI and communist activities) and "3rd Base, Dodger Stadium," sung by longtime Cooder mate James Bla Pahinui -- who plays the part of a stadium car parker whose home was covered over by the hot corner in the ballpark. Chavez Ravine is sad and beautiful, funny, quirky and funky; it's got dirt under its nails and keeps listeners engaged from the jump with history and its colorful ghosts. Cooder sends it all off with solace, and perhaps with some hope, in a version of "Soy Luz y Sombra," a gorgeous a cappella Costa Rican folk tune with original music. Chavez Ravine is easily the most ambitious thing in Cooder's catalog, and it just may be the grand opus of his career.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek