Ry Cooder’s ‘The UFO Has Landed’ Finally Put His Amazing Career in Context

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An underrated artist with an eye for the offhand gem, Ry Cooder remains an all-but-anonymous, genius-grade poet in the American vernacular of brown bottles, trailer parks, stray dogs and rascals. Give Cooder a guitar, and he becomes this sweep-the-kitchen pot of bubbling gumbo, too, mastering everything from blues to dust-bowl folk, Tex-Mex to soul, gospel to mid-century rock. He’s also the guy on approximately 1 million or so film soundtracks.

Yet nobody’s ever heard of him. So, he’s paid the bills with some impressive sessions work. You find Ry Cooder palling around with the Rolling Stones (including key sessions work on Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers, among other projects), Van Morrison (on 1979’s Into the Music), jazz genius Earl “Fatha” Hines, John Haitt’s Little Village, John Lee Hooker and on Mavis Staples.

Somehow the sidewalk still ends just short of fame for Cooder, despite his ability to make most of these U-turns seem like his own preconceived notion. It’s perhaps the fault of Ry himself, since he never seemed to find a niche he was willing to turn into a rut. Too, his wandering eye has sometimes lit on unsuitable material.

Ry Cooder remained vital by adding a trademark wink, this unexpected feint, to every trip through a forgotten genre record, to every unlikely rest stop along his twisting discography. Those triumphs were writ large on The UFO Has Landed, a double-album released by Rhino Records on Oct. 28, 2008 that left out the stumbles in a sprint towards brilliance. Produced by Cooder’s son, Joachim, this 34-song compilation plucked some of the very best of his output over four decades – from Ry’s self-titled 1970 debut to what was then his most recent effort, 2008’s I, Flathead; from signature cuts like “Maria Alena” and “Jesus on the Mainline” to Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister” and “Available Space.”

Joachim starts The UFO Has Landed with Dad’s doo-wop-ish take on the Johnny Cash tune “Get Rhythm,” the title track from a 1987 recording. He throws in Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s “On a Monday” from 1972 and Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi” from Ry Cooder’s initial album. Pianist Jim Dickinson’s steady, soulful hand as bandmate/producer was illustrated on groovers like Willie Dixon’s “Which Came First” from 1982 and Cooder’s own “Feelin’ Bad Blues” from the 1986 soundtrack for Crossroads. Shared compositions with Joachim were highlighted by “Drive Like I Never Been Hurt,” also originally released in 2008.

There were conjunto flavorings and a New Orleans tinge (on “Maria Elena,” from seminal Louisiana jazz legend Bunk Johnson), several tangy updates on traditional tunes (notably “Tamp ‘Em Up Solid,” from 1974’s Paradise and Lunch), not to mention the twinkling memory of Chaka Khan as a backup singer on “Bop ‘Til You Drop,” the 1979 release that produced “The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor)” elsewhere on The UFO Has Landed. Other familiar soundtrack selections appear, notably those from the atmospheric Paris, Texas – based, Ry Cooder says, on the old blues track “Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground)” – and “Southern Comfort,” as well as a previously unreleased version of “Let’s Work Together” featuring accordion player Buckwheat Zydeco, drummer Jim Keltner and Dickinson.

Joachim took refreshing liberties with sequencing and pace, creating new connections for old fans and allowing newer ones to achieve a spectacular vista: There isn’t much that Ry Cooder can’t play – slide guitar, banjo, mandolin – and in every style from the mainland to Hawaiian slack-key guitar. Mashed up on The UFO Has Landed, the result was the kind of career-defining recording that Ry Cooder’s artful restlessness would never quite allow him to make.


Jimmy Nelson

Jimmy Nelson

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Jimmy Nelson
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