Already a seasoned music business veteran at the age of 22, Ry Cooder stepped out from behind the shadows of the likes of Jackie DeShannon, Taj Mahal, the Rolling Stones, and Captain Beefheart, signing his own deal with Warner Brothers records in 1969. Released the following year, Cooder's eponymous debut creates an intriguing fusion of blues, folk, rock & roll, and pop, filtered through his own intricate, syncopated guitar; Van Dyke Parks and Lenny Waronker's idiosyncratic production; and Parks and Kirby Johnson's string arrangements. And while he's still finding his feet as a singer, Cooder puts this unique blend across with a combination of terrific songs, virtuosic playing, and quirky, yet imaginative, arrangements. For material, Cooder, the son of folklorist parents, unearths ten gems -- spanning six decades dating back to the 1920s -- by legends such as Woody Guthrie, Blind Blake, Sleepy John Estes, and Leadbelly, as well as a current Randy Newman composition. Still, as great as his outside choices are, it's the exuberant charm of his own instrumental "Available Space" that nearly steals the show. Its joyful interplay between Cooder's slide, Van Dyke Parks' music hall piano, and the street-corner drumming creates a piece that is both loose and sophisticated. If "Available Space" is the record's most playful moment, its closer, "Dark Is the Night," is the converse, with Cooder's stark, acoustic slide extracting every ounce of torment from Blind Willie Johnson's mournful masterpiece. Some of the eccentric arrangements may prove to be a bit much for both purists and pop audiences alike, but still, Cooder's need to stretch, tempered with a reverence for the past, helps to create a completely original work that should reward adventurous listeners.
Ry Cooder Review
by Brett Hartenbach