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Ry Cooder, Beck Bridge a Generation

July 17, 2008

By Tony Sauro, The Record, Stockton, Calif.

Jul. 17–Beck Hansen was born the same year Ry Cooder released his first album.

Though a generation separates the 38-year-old Hansen (who goes by the stage name Beck) and the 61-year-old Cooder, they share an acquisitive, eclectic musical curiosity and affinity for bending barriers and exploring new artistic territory.

Highly respected members of the Los Angeles music scene, they’ve been all over the stylistic map — Beck from rap rhythms to pure pop balladry and futuristic funk and Cooder from folk, blues, jazz and Tex-Mex to award-winning movie soundtracks and the indigenous sounds of Hawaii and Cuba.

Unlike the once platinum-selling Beck, the prolific Cooder has labored in comparative commercial obscurity. That hasn’t prevented him from assembling a richly rewarding repository of American roots music.

Their new recordings are typically individualistic and appealing.

Beck not guilty

On “Modern Guilt,” Beck and producer Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) have concocted 10 concise gems that add up to the equivalent of a ’60s or ’70s album (33:43) with their engaging, hang-loose vibe and first-take sense of simplicity and spontaneity. It sounds like doing this wasn’t a chore.

The songscapes range from choppy and funky, with poppy SoCal vocal harmonies (“Orphans”) to post-millennial rockabilly with an “ah-ah-ah” chorus (“Gamma Ray”) and some spacey, quirky, let’s-see-if-this-works toying around (“Replica”).

Now a married father of two, Beck — his wobbly voice often sounding bemused and vulnerable — opens the album by announcing: “Think I’m stranded but I don’t know where.”

He proceeds to explore lots of dark corners and emotional precipices while observing a world full of chaos and turmoil. “There’s a bottomless pit we’ve been climbing from/Just to get on level ground,” he wearily observes on “Youthless.”

Beck performs Aug. 22 at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Cooder trilogy

Cooder, a gravel-voiced virtuoso on almost any kind of guitar, isn’t quite as grim or cheerless on “I, Flathead,” the last in a trilogy devoted to telling the Southern California saga. It includes the luminous “Chavez Ravine” (2005) and last year’s charming “My Name Is Buddy,” cultural history viewed through the Steinbeckian prism of a cat.

“I, Flathead” (subtitled “The Songs of Kash Buk and the Clowns”) tells the sadly wizened — but wryly witty and wise — tales of a burned-out high-desert drag racer and Johnny Cash admirer and his odd assortment of acquaintances and experiences.

As usual, just listening to Cooder’s encyclopedic and always tasteful guitar picking is a kick. He’s joined by his 30-year-old son, Joachim, on drums and other skilled musicians, including Mariachi Los Camperos y Jesus Guzman (“Drive Like I Never Been Hurt”).

Cooder roams his typically diverse stylistic terrain, keeping it stark and rudimentary, from the country blues stomp of “Waitin’ for Some Girl” to the Les Paul jazziness of “Steel Guitar Heaven,” the island vibe of “Filipino Dancehall Girl” and the loose-limbed grind of “Ridin’ With the Blues” (flathead engine sound effects included).

“I, Flathead” can be purchased with a companion 97-page novella by Cooder that’s as strange as the album is intriguing.

Gordon Lightfoot

This is a pleasant surprise.

Gordon Lightfoot, the veteran Canadian troubadour, is scheduled to perform Oct. 15 at Stockton’s Bob Hope Theatre. Tickets ($46.75 and $56.75) go on sale Friday.

Lightfoot, who turns 70 on Nov. 17, survived a near-fatal acute abdominal aneurysm in 2002, and has toured infrequently since recovering.

An accomplished and respected songwriter, Lightfoot is among Canada’s most honored musicians, having written what many consider to be the country’s “second” national anthem (“Canadian Railroad Trilogy”).

He’s best known in the U.S. for timeless tunes such as “Sundown ” (No. 1 in 1974), “If You Could Read My Mind” (No. 5 in 1971) “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (No. 2 in 1976), “Carefree Highway” (No. 10 in 1974), “Early Morning Rain” and “For Lovin’ Me.”

Information: (209) 337-4673 or go to www.bobhopetheatre.com.

Contact Tony Sauro at (209) 546-8267 or tsauro@recordnet.com.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Record, Stockton, Calif.

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