Cornerstone of the 'americana' sound
Ry Cooder is one of the greatest slide guitar geniuses that the world of popular music has ever known, but Ry Cooder is very clear that a great album cannot be just a platform to show his expertise with the guitar. Cooder is much more than a great guitarist and his solo albums are much more than platforms for showcasing his instrumental chops, as Paradise And Lunch, one of the jewels of his career, demonstrates.
Since his solo debut with Ry Cooder, in December 1970, Cooder sought to fuse all the roots genres that make up what we know as American music - blues, country, jazz, folk or gospel are mixed in his particular cauldron and come together thanks to totally personal and unique interpretations. Because Cooder, more than a composer, is an adaptor of old songs, achieving something totally his own with others material, and it is Cooder's cover versions that distinguish themselves from the originals; seeking to be a new reading and achieving a totally cohesive sound.
This can be appreciated to perfection on this album, in which a totally different song emerges from Cooder’s interpretation of Washington Phillips' Tattler, to which he even adds a chorus that it didn't have, that "true love can be such a sweet harmony if you do the best that you can". This is sung in perfect harmony with the voices of people like Bobby King, George McCum and Russell Titelman, which gives a new twist to the song. His beloved '67 Daphne Blue Fender Stratocaster colors the song here and there, but never seeks prominence for itself, but rather helps build a song that also benefits from a nice string arrangement.
This is the case throughout the album, such as in the opening Tamp 'Em Up Solid, a traditional blues that is given a funky touch, with a great vocal accompaniment and taking full advantage of his Martin 00-18; proving that he is one of the best acoustic blues players in history. Of course on Married Man's a Fool, a Blind Willie McTell original, his Stratocaster again confirms that he's just as good plugged in. Jesus On The Mainline is a gospel marvel, to which Cooder adds a Jamaican rhythm and New Orleans band horns; making for an irresistible piece.
He manages to put his stamp on On It's All Over Now, a Bobby Womack song that the Rolling Stones also made their own, by turning it into a kind of smoky reggae. Those who want to listen to the slide genius can opt for Fool for a Cigarette / Feelin Good, in which his Stratocaster finds those notes that are capable of making your skin crawl. On the other hand, Mexican Divorce shows that just as he can take a traditional song from the early 20th century and give it his own touch, he can also do it by adopting a song by one of the best pop composers of all time, Burt Bacharach. This is what he does with Mexican Divorce, written for the Drifters, in which he begins to flirt with sounds from further south of the Rio Grande, something that will be augmented from the time of his next album, Chicken Skin Music, with the addition of Flaco Jimenez's accordion.
And the album closes by going to the root of it all, to the piano of Earl Hines, one of the leading musicians of the 20th century, responsible along with his friend Louis Armstrong for turning New Orleans jazz into classic American music, and opening the way for swing and be bop. No wonder that Dizzy Gillespie, who was a member of his band, said that "modern piano comes from Earl Hines". Well, Ry Cooder decides to end the album with a duet with this giant in which his acoustic guitar speaks as an equal to the man whose 1928 duet with Armstrong, Weather Bird, is one of the fundamental songs of the first half of the 20th century.
In sum, Paradise and Lunch is a key work for what was called Americana, and if there is an album that can be described as such, it is this one, a musical journey in which Ry Cooder takes us from blues to jazz, passing through gospel, country, R&B, Tex-Mex music and light touches of reggae, and in which all these influences are perfectly integrated in a sound as pure as the one he achieves here. It is the soundtrack of a country that, perhaps, only exists in the musical reconstruction that Ry Cooder makes of it. Perhaps the only records that get close to that special sound, so American, are those of Randy Newman and Little Feat, and it is no coincidence that Cooder played with both...