Chicken Skin Music, by Ry Cooder
Suggested by Garf O’Loughlin
When I know little about an artist save the name, I spend a fair chunk of time thinking of a hook for my review.
Sometimes I’ll tell a tangential personal story, and others I’ll wax lyrical on the project itself. Sometimes, the music will inspire some fresh take or anecdote on a theme, and yet others I’ll do a little Googling and chat awhile about the band.
And other times, as I planned for this review, I’ll try for a joke.
Don’t worry, I’ve already abandoned it. The joke wasn’t fleshed out at all. It was going to centre on Ry Cooder’s fictitious brother, Barry
See? Barry. Barry Cooder. Like Barracuda. Funny!
Before committing to the skit, I did a cursory internet check. Turns out there is a band (or was a band) called Barry Cooder and the Sharks. This news took the blush off the rose, so to speak, so I ditched the joke in a fit of pique.
Still kept the bones of the intro though. No point wasting good material!
All I knew about Ry Cooder going into this album was that he’s a guitarist. Actually, he’s a little more than that. He’s one of the guitarists, like Hendrix and Clapton and Santana. Guitarists that seem to transcend the bands they are with and become forces of musical nature. With a whopping seventeen studio albums, countless collaborations and a plethora of other projects, it’s safe to say that, somewhere down the line, I’ll have heard ol’ Cooder play without explicitly registering it.
(Sidenote: Ry Cooder is also an accomplished creator of film soundtracks, including the soundtrack to the 1986 Ralph Macchio vehicle Crossroads in which Ralph looks to regain the traded soul of a Blues legend with his non-karate-based guitar prowess. I mention this because I know a subset of my readership are fans.)
Chicken Skin Music is Cooder’s fifth solo album, from 1976, containing nine wonderful renditions of classic songs and blues standards, each given a fine coat of fresh Cooder-coloured paint. Each one, from the excellent Stand By Me to the timeless Goodnight Irene, offers up a picture-perfect slice of folk-blues guitar with exciting instrumental embellishment. Cooder is obviously a master of all forms of six-stringery, from the Hawaiian sound of Kanaka Wai Wai to the sultry slide of Yellow Roses to the countrified Americana of I Got Mine. It’s exciting yet easy-listening stuff. My favourite song is likely the first, Leadbelly’s The Bourgeois Blues, a lilting roil full of bluster and bluesman rhetoric.
Generally, I’d find this a little anodyne for my tastes, as while it’s accomplished and packed with talent, there’s a slight lack of the energy and drive I value highly. However, Chicken Skin Music does compensate for this in spades with the sheer layers of interest packed into each arrangement. There’s a lot of music per square inch here.
Ry Cooder has piqued my extended interest, and Chicken Skin Music gets 7/10. There’s so much of Cooder’s stuff out there. With a storied career spanning many decades, I’m interested to discover how deep Ry’s rabbit hole can go.