A UFO is hovering over the Los Angeles Latino enclave known as Chávez Ravine. Its occupant, something called the Space Vato, has a radio. He’s picking up conjunto, jazz, corrido, Lil Julian Herrera’s hit ‘Lonely Lonely Night’, but also news bulletins. McCarthyism is in the air and the visitor has heard that the city’s developers have plans for the Ravine’s land – not for housing, but for a stadium to house the Dodgers baseball club.
This album, Cooder’s first outside the Cuban Buena Vista related projects sounds crazy, but it works well. Cooder is a guitarist whose work is rooted in a descriptive Americana that finds its exuberance elsewhere in Latin music. With a tight band that includes East LA legends such as Don Tosti, Little Willie G and Lalo Guerrero, Cooder guides his team through his real – and imagined – landscape. ‘Chinito Chinito’ is a sassy girls’ song, to be sung on street corners; ‘Los Chucos Suaves’, a song originally recorded by Guerrero in 1949, is for the guys on a Saturday night; ‘It’s Just Work For Me’ is a brooding premonition in blues.
But if there’s one track that encapsulates the weirdness of Chávez Ravine, it’s ‘El UFO Cayo’ (‘The UFO fell’), a dreamy message from outer space voiced by Juliette Commagere. Its pace is languid, and the warm soup of sounds includes chirruping insects, the wail of a distant train, a crowd even. It’s a song that expands to take over your private listening space, and that’s extraordinary in itself.