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Time Bandits

 

Ry Cooder: Chávez Ravine

Nonesuch, 2005

Rating: 3.9

 

Posted: June 17, 2005

By Laurence Station

Chávez Ravine is a social narrative told through music. But this isn’t some locked-groove companion to Buena Vista Social Club, Ry Cooder’s universally acclaimed celebration of pre-revolutionary Cuban music (although some superficial similarities certainly exist). Rather, Chávez Ravine is a nostalgic reflection on a humble Los Angeles Mexican-American hillside community bulldozed out of existence during the 1950s to make way for progress -- progress that ultimately became a baseball stadium for the recently transplanted Brooklyn Dodgers instead of the low-income housing redevelopment plan initially proposed.

Like Buena Vista, Chávez Ravine is a heavily collaborative effort. And many of the artists Cooder features on the album, like Chicano music legend Lalo Guerrero, Thee Midniters point man Little Willie G. and pachuco boogie king Don Tosti, lived in, or have fond memories of, the area before it was leveled. Cooder, who was raised in the flat suburban blandness of Santa Monica and never visited Chávez Ravine before it disappeared, assumes the role of various characters throughout the album, from a pragmatic bulldozer driver on the hardscrabble “It's Just Work For Me” to a creepy visionary of a soulless modern metropolis on “In My Town.”

Mostly, Cooder plays unobtrusive guitar (save for the nimble groover “Muy Fifi,” where his flourishes add some real spice to the mix), preferring to let the older musicians bask in the spotlight. That's quite magnanimous, but unlike the uniformly brilliant cuts on Buena Vista, Chávez Ravine suffers from an uneven flow due to the varying quality of the material (a half-Spanish, half-English combination of Cooder originals and old standards).

The best moments favor strong hooks and flavorful beats, such as the laid-back, Jimmy Buffet-esque “Poor Man's Shangri-La,” which finds contentment in “cool threads and a beat-up car” over a distinctive clatter of timbales. The edgy, trumpet-expressed paranoia of “Don't Call Me Red” has Cooder relating the tale of Frank Wilkinson, the assistant director of the L.A. City Housing Authority and a supporter of the redevelopment project, who was raked over the coals by the Red-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee (he subsequently lost his job and spent a year in jail). The sinuously mesmerizing “El U.F.O. Cayo” features Don Tosti playing an alien traveler who arrives to warn the people of their community’s imminent destruction and offers to help them escape to a better, non-Anglo-controlled world.

It’s also hard to miss with Little Willie G.’s “Muy Fifi,” about a girl who’s warned to steer clear of a pachuco (a flashy, Zoot suit wearing youth) named Smiley, and Lalo Guerrero’s complementary swinging pachuco dance hit “Los Chucos Suaves,” which sports a strong tenor sax performance by Gil Bernal. But “Chinito Chinito,” a 1949 novelty song originally recorded by Don Tosti about the local Chinese community, just doesn’t measure up. Neither does the contrived “3rd Base, Dodger Stadium,” with slack-key guitarist Bla Pahinui on lead vocal, which wistfully recalls first kisses where the middle of the first base line now runs.

Chávez Ravine is obviously a fond tribute to a time and a place that can never be recreated. But despite alluding to the injustice that destroyed he community, the album never catches fire in terms of outcry or indignation. Not that such acrimony would change what happened, but a little more passion would certainly reinforce the impact of the crime and more emphatically illuminate just how much was lost in the Los Angeles Mexican-American community after the enclave vanished from the map.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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