Just for the record: Giving Creedence to Ry and Liz
A bi-weekly vinyl review
The new Ry Cooder album, The Prodigal Son, his first for the Fantasy Records label, has been hailed as as uplifting rejoinder to the Trumpish malaise. It is, one review suggested, “yet another act of committed intention from one of American music’s greatest guardians and purveyors”.Here are eight covers and three originals that hark back to Cooder’s earliest records for Reprise/Warner Bros Records: albums that revitalised bygone musical genres — blues, folk, gospel and swing mainly, but also Hawaiian, calypso and Tex-Mex — to shine a light on the historical present, like his live version of Everybody Ought To Treat A Stranger Right, an album highlight.Cooder was a prodigiously talented session musician long before his recording debut as a solo artist — on The Prodigal Son, co-produced with his son Joachim, he takes charge of all guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin and keyboard duties. He was 17 when he first recorded, in 1964, with The Rising Sons, a short-lived outfit that featured another great guitarist, the blues legend Taj Mahal.He also had a brief stint as a member of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, and appeared on their acclaimed 1967 debut album, Safe as Milk (Buddah Records).Cooder’s tenure with the band did not last long. The group had just started a set at the June 1967 Mount Tamalpais Festival in Marin County, California, when Beefheart — aka Don Van Vliet — froze in mid-song, straightened his tie and walked off the edge of the 3m-high stage to land on top of music industry executive Bob Krasnow. The incident put an end to the band’s ambitions to appear at the prestigious Monterey Pop Festival the following weekend. Van Vliet claimed he’d seen a girl in the audience turn into a fish, with bubbles coming from her mouth, and had wanted to meet her. Cooder immediately quit the group.For crate divers looking for those early Cooder albums, 1974’s Paradise and Lunch frequently turns up at local vinyl fairs. Many regard this as his best record, but my money’s on 1971’s Into the Purple Valley, a set that focused on the music of the Dust Bowl era, with covers of songs by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Sis Cunningham among others, as well as inventive interpretations of traditional standards. Any of the other early Cooder albums — Ry Cooder (1970), Boomer’s Story (1972) and Chicken Skin Music (1976) — are worth picking up, too; all in all, they showcase an encyclopaedic knowledge of roots music and phenomenal guitar playing.After that, Cooder’s stronger recordings would stem from his film work. The soundtrack albums to Walter Hill’s The Long Riders (1980) and Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984) are worth seeking out. Both of these have been reissued on vinyl by Warner Bros Records.Later still, Cooder began to look beyond North America for inspiration, and released two extraordinary collaborative albums —1993’s Grammy Award-winning A Meeting By The River (Water Lily Acoustics), a joyous genre-crossing exercise with Indian musican Vishwa Mowan Bhatt, and 1994’s Talking Timbuktu (World Circuit), with Malian desert blues guitar legend Ali Farke Toure — before striking gold as a producer with the World Music smash that was 1997’s Buena Vista Social Club (World Circuit). All essential, all on vinyl.WAR TALK
Here’s an album from a newcomer worth looking out for: With The Sun (ORG Music), by the Los Angeles-based singer, songwriter and acoustic guitarist Sunny War (née Sydney Lyndella Ward). It’s her third release, but her first on vinyl.War may be in her mid-20s, but she has travelled a long and hard road: she was born to a single mom in Nashville and had a nomadic childhood, moving from Michigan to Colorado before living rough on the streets of San Fransisco. She eventually settled in LA as a teenager, where she learnt to fingerpick listening to the Beatles’ Blackbird and became known for her busking in Venice Beach.
She cites diverse influences — blues legends Robert Johnson and Elmore James, singer-songwriters Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman, and for good measure punk rockers Black Flag — all of which can be heard in the hypnotic calm of her work. Try If It Wasn’t Broken, a track off the album which showcases her guitar playing. The video, War told WXPN, a public radio station based at the University of Pennsylvania, was shot in Venice.“I wrote If It Wasn’t Broken at the end of a rough relationship,” she said. “The chord progression is soothing to me, and I especially like Nikita Sorokin’s violin part. If you listen carefully you can hear the surdo drum imitate a beating heart throughout the track. This was the producer Harlan [Steinberger]’s idea. I hope the pulse of this song can comfort and resonate with other brokenhearted people.”
THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION
There’s an old “knock, knock” joke beloved of rock snobs featuring the corny pay-off: “Hasie who?” “Hasie a bad moon rising …” Cue groaning far and wide. It would be unfair to suggest that that particular Creedence Clearwater Revival anthem, which first topped charts the world over in 1969, has overstayed its welcome, but there’s no denying its ubiquity in the ensuing decades has given it a certain risibility.Which is a pity. CCR were both terrific and prolific. A blue-collar roots and swamp rock outfit that, for all the catfish, bayous, Mississippi riverboats, Cajun beauties and other Southern gothic delights in their songs, hailed from the San Fransisco Bay Area and churned out a slew of hit singles and memorable albums, all in a two-year purple period that began in January 1969 with the release of their second album, Bayou Country, which set the template for CCR leader John Fogerty’s signature style and featured the worldwide smash, Proud Mary.The next album, Green River, featuring Bad Moon Rising, was released in August that year, and was the first of three consecutive releases considered absolutely essential in the Creedence canon. The next was Willy and the Poor Boys, released in November 1969, which featured Fortunate Son, perhaps the most enduring of all songs to protest the Vietnam War. This was followed in July 1970 by Cosmo’s Factory, arguably their best album, which featured the era-defining Who’ll Stop the Rain and Run Through the Jungle as well as an 11-minute stomp through Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine.Cosmo’s Factory was a difficult act to follow, but Pendulum, released in December 1970, was a game and noble attempt. It was the group’s most sonically adventurous, introducing horns and keyboards to a guitar-dominated formula. All its songs, including the hits here, Have You Ever Seen the Rain? And Hey Tonight, were written by Fogerty, the group’s principal producer and musical arranger.It was this creative control that ultimately led to the group’s breakup. Fogerty’s older brother, Tom, quit the band following a dispute over John’s insistence that he be the band’s sole singer/songwriter/business manager. Fogerty would relent a little, though, and for their next album, Mardi Gras, he allowed bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford a share in songwriting and production. The results were disastrous. Two of the album’s Fogerty-penned tracks, Sweet Hitch-Hiker and Someday Never Comes, were hits, but the rest was dire. The group disbanded after Mardi Gras’s release in April 1972.All of CCR’s albums have been reissued in vinyl by Universal, including the rough debut, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and are easily found. For those just wanting the berries, look out for Chronicle: 20 Greatest Hits, a double album with absolutely no filler.
Indie rocker Liz Phair’s seminal debut, Exile in Guyville (Matador), was hailed as a feminist landmark upon its release 25 years ago, bursting on the scene as it did, seemingly from nowhere, at the apex of the “riot grrrl” and Women in Rock movements. It was, as one critic put it, both part off those scenes and “something else”.It was an ambitious record, and a divisive one. Writing in Rolling Stone recently, Jessica Hopper recalled the discussions in the record store where she was employed when the album first appeared in 1993. “Listening to the men I worked alongside pick apart this woman none of them knew – whom they called an amateur and a slut because she’d written a song called Fuck and Run and reportedly appeared topless on her album cover – taught me a crucial early lesson: The boys who run this scene will hate your ambition either way, so you might as well just do whatever you want.”
Unusually for a debut, Guyville was a double album, a bold venture for a newcomer. And she had the material to back up her ambitions. Her songcraft was flawless, her lyrics witheringly candid in their stark sexuality. And there was little or no sloganeering or dogma in Phair’s brand of feminism; her rage was articulated with guile and guitar jangle.Even more ballsy was the fact that Guyville was, in both form and concept, a track-by-track riposte to one of rock’s most swaggeringly masculine albums, the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main St.
It was assembled like a puzzle, Phair explained in a 2010 interview, where she imagined questions that Mick Jagger would answer. “I was like: ‘Oh, that’s what you were doing last night’,” she told Rolling Stone. “It fit so perfectly with our neighbourhood and the age we were. We were living kind of outside of society, me especially. I would write down the song from Exile [On Main St] and I had a code — there were stars, squares, circles, spiral lines, at least eight symbols that each meant something. Let’s say a square meant it was a big song on the record in terms of fully arranged, and a wavy line would mean they used a lot of reverb and it was watery and atmospheric. Then I would go through my songs and do the same thing.”The results were extraordinary. As Spin magazine put it: “Combined with its literate pop craft, untethered libido, and utter confidence, Guyville was about the most glorious, girly Fuck You ever.”
To celebrate its 25th anniversary, Matador have released a remastered version of Exile in Guyville as well as a deluxe seven-LP set, Girly-Sound to Guyville, which includes the album and adds music from the three independently produced Girly-Sound cassettes that Phair released prior to her debut. These would include earlier, rawer versions of the songs that would appear on Guyville.
Phair went on to release a number of other albums, but nothing matched up to the strength of her first.