A concept album about McCarthyism, UFOs and the building of Dodger Stadium in the late '50s couldn't possibly be a landmark of American music -- let alone listenable, danceable fun. Still, if antiquated criteria like beauty, depth and vision have a place in a critic's lexicon or a listener's desire, then behold this contender for record of the year.
From the opening track, "Poor Man's Shangri-La," narrative and rhythm ignite bombas of history. A UFO hovers over Chávez Ravine, a working-class Chicano barrio soon to be gutted by bulldozers and politicians to make way for the Dodgers. A lost LA -- a lost America, you might say -- rises to meet the lone space vato piloting the ship (and narrating Ravine). Two boxers, the brothers Chávez, go to the ropes against city hall; sailors rampage against pachucos; a Chinese laundryman rattles his change box to barrio rhythms; Hoover's goons hunt and harass trade unionists; and young and old hurl stones and bottles at the leveling machines. A community rebels, and eminent domain is implacable.
But Cooder isn't just reviving the past, although legends like Little Willie G., Ersi Arvizu and Lalo Guerrero make major contributions to Ravine. He has never made a record that so highlights his strengths as an artist -- eccentric humor, mysterious guitar work and an appetite for the rhythms of life -- or an album that so bonds and pleases the mind and the spirit.