I love vinyl. I’m a pretty avid collector of records, (or as avid as a 20-year old in the era of digital music can be) having about 65 to my name now. Some were bought, some were given to me by a friend and some I nicked from my Dad’s old record collection. I love the thrill of going into second-hand record shops (Which are sadly scarce in Northern Ireland) and sifting through the dusty sleeves as a gold miner in a Californian stream; searching insistently through the mire till I find that one speck of gold. Music seems to have lost its value to me; albums are available as downloads with no real album artwork to speak of and the sound is cheapened by listening to it through tinny headphones or laptop speakers. Nothing to me sounds so good, or feels so right, as listening to a needle sliding along those crisp grooves to produce a deeply full and resonant sound. I guess it’s a combination of the two of these reasons that’s made me love Ry Cooder’s Paradise and Lunch even more than I would already have. I took it from Dad’s record collection a while ago, having been familiar with Ry Cooder through his recordings with Ali Farka Toure, The Rolling Stones (see Lick My Decals Off, Baby! No. 7) and his soundtrack for Wim Wenders’ masterpiece Paris, Texas. The fact that it used to belong to my Dad obviously gives it a history, and planning to listen to it through his fantastic speakers gave me great expectations for this listening experience. But despite my high expectations, Paradise and Lunch managed to completely surpass them. I’m still reeling a little bit from the impact it had on me.
Ry Cooder is a rather eccentric musician, having played with artists across a number of genres and having made a lot of music across a similarly wide range. Due to his limited singing and songwriting ability, his albums (early ones at least) have tended to be filled with his own unique interpretations of a variety of songs, and Paradise and Lunch is no exception. What is exceptional about this album is that every cut is majestic in its own way. An eclectic mix of traditional folk songs, blues, gospel and contemporary music is here presented with astounding freshness and originality.
The first cut, Tamp ‘Em Up Solid, is a playful incarnation of a traditional railroad song, and right from the onset you know you’re in for something special. The drums shuffle along casually, leaving plenty of room for Cooder’s resonant acoustic guitar to add a whole spectrum of colour to our palates. It’s gentle and laid back – a master at work. A few other traditional songs are given a playful revamp – the spiritual song Jesus on the Mainline is given a carnival treatment, building up from a timid gospel romp to a stomping, joyous celebration with a New-Orleans style cornet and backing vocals straight from the chain gang. This is music from Mardi Gras, circa 1920. Yet immediately following it as a cover of Bobby Womack’s It’s All Over Now, better known by The Rolling Stones’ version. It’s AMAZING how well the two songs stand by each other It’s All Over Now is given a similar treatment as Jesus On The Mainline, very reminiscent of Nashville country music with plinky-plonky piano, discordant guitar and a pulsating, insistent rhythm. It is both a testament to the timeless quality of the songs and Cooder’s penchant for obscure musical gems that these songs can proudly stand side by side. Paradise and Lunch could easily have been a personal project for Cooder allowing him to indulge himself, but it doesn’t come off that way. No; his love of the songs and their lighthearted presentation allows us to appreciate them as good songs; not merely as an education in our musical roots or a playlist of favourite songs.
Despite the fact that the songs differ greatly in age, genre and meaning, Ry Cooder’s ingenious playing, arrangement and touch of artistry allow all of these songs to form a suite or sorts. There are common lyrical themes of spirituality, unfaithfulness, true love and other such bluesy topics. On Married Man’s A Fool, a wife’s unfaithfulness is presented as a certainty rather than a speculation, on If Walls Could Talk, coy lovers are glad that the shoes on their feet can’t speak and say where they’ve been. Burt Bacharach’s Mexican Divorce (here presented in a calypso style) and It’s All Over Now deals with the separation of a couple, Fool For a Cigarette/Feelin’ Good explores the pursuit of hedonism. The themes here are universal, so the date they were written really doesn’t matter. In 100 years they’d still be relevant.
Cooder’s only original, Tattler, is a sweet, pop-like song with sentimental strings and Cooder’s shimmering guitar sounding like Mark Knopfler before Mark Knopfler did. The album ends on Ditty Wah Ditty; a stunning duet between Ry Cooder on acoustic guiar and jazz legend Earl Hines on piano. The song is an old blues by “Blind” Blake, and Earl Hines was a living legend at this point, having made his name playing with Louis Armstrong in the 1920’s. For all we know he could have played with “Blind” Blake back then. The triumph of this song lies not in the huge weight of history behind it, though. It lies in the strength of the stunning interplay between the two musicians. Cooder’s guitar and Hines’ piano could have been separated at birth, so astonishing is their communication and exposition, constantly trading ideas with each other, complimenting each other’s sound and spurring each other on to find newer and more exciting sounds from their respective instruments. Yet it feels spontaneous, as if the two musicians simply sat down to jam while someone had carelessly left the recorder running. Such is the confidence and mastery of the two musicians, especially Cooder, which is incredible considering he was not only shy on commercial success (none of his albums had reached the top 100) but was also playing with an established legend of music 44 years his senior.
Much must be said about Ry Cooder’s guitar playing if I haven’t already said anything. He doesn’t sing on this album, recruiting nearly 10 singers to fill that job, and he only partly composed 1 of the album’s 9 tracks, so he has no excuses if he comes up short. Thankfully he doesn’t. His playing is impressive, and when it comes to knowing exactly what to play, how to play it and when to play it, Cooder has no competitors. Utilizing electric, acoustic and slide guitars, he takes his pick when appropriate and colours the music like a painter choosing colours from his palate. His tone is crisp and fresh, delicate when necessary and at times dazzling. For me, he’s truly one of the most refreshing and original guitarists I’ve ever heard.
To be honest, this album is exactly the sort of thing I’ve been wanting for years. I love blues, but some of the old blues masters (like Robert Johnson) just sound too dry and stripped-down to me. Conversely, some electric blues like Stevie Ray Vaughan leans too much on rock and sounds just like a bluesier version of Van Halen. This is possibly the first time I’ve found the perfect balance between old and contemporary music delivered with such finesse, adoration and sheer fun. I’ve tried getting into bands like The Derek Trucks Band, but as good as the musicians are the songs just feel like projects; uninspired and mechanical. Paradise and Lunch hits the spot for me more than any other album of its kind has. I only heard it for the first time yesterday, but in the 24 hours since then I’ve listened to it 5 times. I don’t remember the last time I heard an album that I loved so much, and if you’re in any way curious about such an eclectic mix of music I can’t recommend this album enough.
Words - Adam
Like how we blah blah blah about la la la? Why not check out our musings on Ali Farka Touré and John Coltrane for some more fun?