"Chavez Ravine" (Nonesuch)
* * * 1/2
It's been almost a decade since this respected American guitarist and songwriter started recycling old Cuban music under a global brand name, the Buena Vista Social Club. But while Buena Vista brought him new popularity, it also eclipsed his own voice and vision.
His new, non-Cuban CD (due in stores Tuesday) once again finds the curious Cooder exploring musical history. Or, in this case, history through music.
His latest topic keeps him close to home -- the 1950s destruction of Mexican American barrios where Dodger Stadium now stands. And Cooder comes through loud and clear on this evocative and valuable work.
He brings two things to this project that make it resonate and rise above most pop music -- a heart and a conscience. Without Cooder's aching sense of loss and smoldering outrage, "Chavez Ravine" would be just another pointless walk down memory lane.
This is Cooder's East Side Story, a barrio musical in search of a script and a stage. His multilayered tale unfolds in a sequence of 15 songs that sketch the people, places and plots of the period.
Once again, he connects with a bygone era by collaborating with musicians who lived it, especially Lalo Guerrero and Don Tosti, two pioneering Chicano artists who died after recording for this CD, which was three years in the making. Little Willie G, from East L.A.'s Thee Midniters, also figures prominently as singer and songwriter.
Cooder penned three numbers that personify key characters -- the idealistic city planner, the evil developer and the bulldozer driver just doing his job. His vivid vocals bring them to life with the crusty gruffness of a Tom Waits and the comedic drawl of a Randy Newman.
"Chavez Ravine" works like a bilingual sequel to "Zoot Suit," and Cooder picks up where Luis Valdez's play left off, drawing on the same genre pool of ballads, corridos, tropical and jitterbug as a soundtrack to a people's strife and survival.
Cooder manages to make his work both cynical and idealistic. But most importantly, it's authentic. This isn't Cuba, where he poses as the savior of somebody else's culture. In "Chavez Ravine," Cooder is just exploring a hidden part of something that already belongs to him -- his hometown.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.