Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Chávez Ravine

It might be a mistake to read too much into song titles, but it makes good sense that Daniel Lanois would kick off his new album, Belladonna—a collection of gorgeous, bittersweet instrumentals—with a song called "Two Worlds." A product of Quebec who later made his home in New Orleans, Lanois knows about living between cultures, and the music of his three terrific (though underplayed) previous solo albums borrowed respectfully from disparate sources without losing his voice. As a producer and solo artist, Lanois has learned to live in different stylistic worlds as well, first attracting attention with appearances on some of Brian Eno's ambient projects, then later joining Eno to co-produce U2 before manning the boards for Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris, and Bob Dylan, among others. With the all-instrumental Belladonna, he keeps one foot in his ambient beginnings and another in the regional traditions he brought into his solo work.


A Texas border trumpet floats above a sinuous snare line on "Agave," then floats away. The pedal steel guitar Lanois plays on most tracks keeps suggesting country music without turning into country. The songs repeat phrases, stray from their themes, then drift back. Nothing here takes the form of a pop song, but only one of the 13 tracks stretches past the five-minute mark, and many last less than two. That brevity is part of what makes the album work. Belladonna's tracks resemble soundtrack cues designed to capture a specific emotion that words could never quite do justice. They cohere, then lose form, like a mood that only takes shape just before vanishing.

A veteran solo artist, guest musician, world-music popularizer, and soundtrack composer, Ry Cooder also knows a thing or two about creating atmospheres and unearthing the music of a specific place. With the over-three-years-in-the-making Chávez Ravine, he recreates the spirit, though not the specific sound, of a place lost to time: the eponymous, mostly Mexican-American neighborhood Los Angeles reclaimed and bulldozed to build Dodger Stadium. Using a variety of musical styles, and throwing in a Jerry Lieber/Mike Stoller number and a cover of a period novelty song about a Chinese laundryman, Cooder touches on key points in Chávez Ravine's history, but the laments about its end outnumber the slices of life. A song composed and sung by the late Lalo Guerrero compares the battle for the Ravine to a fixed fight, a track about the red-baiting used to push the stadium comes complete with Dragnet samples, and later Cooder attempts to figure out where old landmarks fell in the new geography of professional sports.

"Behind home plate, where we used to meet / When we were young, we had dreams," laments one old-timer. The people hold the place in their memory, but by Cooder's reckoning, that's not good enough. Anger remains just beneath the surface here, no matter how pleasant the music that contains it. Chávez Ravine never romanticizes its subject. It simply makes it seem unnatural that any place where people lived, dreamed, died, and formed a neighborhood could be made to disappear. Cooder calls one track "Poor Man's Shangri-La," but his real goal is to capture a paradise lost.