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November 2005

Ry Cooder
Chavez Ravine
Nonesuch Records

In the early '50s, the Los Angeles city government, under the auspices of "public improvement," evicted the residents of the tightly knit communities of Bishop, La Loma and Palo Verde from a plot of land amounting to something more than 300 acres. The area was initially intended as a site for public housing; ultimately the land was used to house Dodger stadium. Hundreds of family were left homeless, many of them receiving insufficient or occasionally no repayment for the land they had ceded.

The story is much more complex than this gloss, of course; it's a complex historical event that speaks to the history of Los Angeles, the history of baseball, the history of Communism, Hispanics in California and the machinations of Social Services and Big Business in 1950s America, to name only a few subplots. It is almost too large, too fertile a topic for one project to attempt to completely encompass, but say what you want about Ry Cooder, the man is not afraid to back down from a challenge.

In an effort to reach out to all the story's many players, Cooder adds a half dozen other ingredients to the mix; a mysterious extraterrestrial "space vato" watching the scene unfold from afar, a playful tale of teenage romance, a sad man who gives his old address as "third base."

The music that tells the tale lifts from a dozen traditions; there is a samba cover of a Coasters track, a raucous Latin rock 'n' roll hip-shaker about a fiery high-school romance, an ethereal and spacey UFO ballad that features an interpolation from the Champs' "Tequila," a Tom Waits-esque burlesque peppered with archival news recordings divulging the disastrous story of a public-housing official's run-ins with Red Scare political thuggery and a dirgelike show tune told from the perspective of an apolitical Anglo who bulldozes houses left behind.

All this is a lot to balance, so perhaps it's not too surprising that the two-CD Chavez Ravine is frustratingly uneven. There are certainly standout cuts, and the almost reggaeton-ish "Chinito Chinito" and the aforementioned ambient ET ballad "El UFO Cayo" are among them. But much of the album is overstuffed with concept and history and slack on catchy and competent songwriting. There are any number of sophomoric lyrics; this groaner from the bulldozer's lament is sadly indicative: "It ain't none of my business / And it ain't my master plan / You got to go where they send you / When you're a dozer drivin' man." Much of the instrumental music is forgettable, unfocussed or marred by poor writing-and tracks like "Poor Man's Shangri-La" and "In My Town" suffer from all three.

Originally published in November 2005
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