RY COODER - Chicken-Skin Music

New Musical Express - October 23rd 1976

With the pound tottering, Kissinger's Rhodesian settlement crumbling and Revie's team a complete shambles.... it's nice to know there are still things you can rely on:

RY COODER: Chicken-Skin Music (Reprise)

That's right, he's not made a bad record yet, and this new opus isn't about to slap even a minor blemish on the gent's peerlessly honed reputation as Mr. Reliable.

I mean, a fella's got to be made of pretty damn shallow stuff not to be at least touched by Ry Cooder's impeccable forays into the subterranean precincts of American ethnic music forms, stretching from those hard-nosed Delta blues and North American folk songs ladled out so fine n'gritty from aways back on those first few Cooder releases right up to sunnier climes etched out here courtesy of the small-orchestra mariarchi mellifluousness of Tex-Mex music and the lilting twang of the Hawaiian guitar.

There's just so much going on again - as per usual.

I mean, just for starters who else but Cooder could sluice together the likes of Leadbelly and Jim Reeves and make it work with such an insidious effortlessness ?

At least one of the two Huddie Leadbetter items is Cooder at his most familiar. The baleful vocals and rusty bedsprings slide jump-back shuffle of "Bourgeois Blues", replete with ace-up-the-sleeve wry social commentary bemoaning racist attitudes amongst "Decent" one horse town white habitues is delightfully pitchy and well within long-established Cooder mould, as are the melodiously humane sentiments of the gospel hollering "Always Lift Him Up", the juke-joint ramble-gambling "I Got Mine", not to mention the rough-neck rocking of side two's opener "Smack Dab In The Middle" with it's snake-eyed venomous slide work.

Familiar Cooder excursions, each and every last one, but then who's complaining ?

"Chicken Skin Music" actually presents Cooder in a couple of new musical surroundings, firstly fronting a Hawaiian ensemble including a small number of that island's most revered musicians, principally one Gabby Pahinui, the acknowledged "King of Hawaiian Guitar".

Much has been written already about this particular musical mating, principally via the pen of Cooder himself who waxes lyrical as to the merits of Pahinui and his cohorts in a piece he himself wrote for Crawdaddy, so it's with some slight regret that I have to report being something less than over-enamoured by results provided here.

The two tracks which boast this ensemble's performances just don't cut it within the context of the rest of this album; one, Hank Snow's "Yellow Roses", sounds quite depressingly maudlin, while the instrumental "Chloe" could be easily mistaken for piped-in-airport lounge muzak.

Happily though, Cooder's other experiments - this time with a Tex-Mex band led by demon accordianist Flaco Jimenez - provide the album with it's most effervescent moments.

As one who once considered listening to anything pertaining to the name of Jim Reeves a task worthy of being branded a descent into some aural Dante's Inferno, I find myself bemusedly seduced utterly by Cooder's handling of the Reeve's chestnut "He'll Have To Go".

I mean goddammit it's just beautiful, is all.

As is an inimitable Cajun waltz rendition of "Goodnight Irene" - the original accept-no-substitute version of Leadbelly's old doleful toon replete with references to "morphine" and the like which somehow seemed to get left out as the song became a hackneyed old evergreen in versions from The Weavers down to The Springfields.

So there you have it. The new Ry Cooder album with the culprit once again tall in the saddle.

Really, what marks off Cooder from other well-intentioned low profile guitar-toting craftsmen - the Leo Kottkes and David Brombergs - of this world is exactly the same factor that separates the work of Gram Parsons, say, from the likes of Loggins and Messina and The Eagles.

Cooder, like Parsons, is the proverbial mad scientist - the one with the vision and inspiration to mate seemingly ludicrous diverse musical forms, to integrate traditions, while the rest content themselves with merely being facile technicians.

What more can I say ? Just check out the brilliant cover art work and take it from me that what comes inside is just as brilliant.

Another Brilliant Ry Cooder album. Goddam, it's really nice to know there are some things you can depend on.

Nick Kent


Information supplied by List member Conny Bergh