Pick up The Ry Cooder Anthology: The UFO Has Landed and emit a sigh of relief. “Anthology” is a broader, far less limiting term than “greatest hits” or anything similarly confining, and for a musician like Cooder, trying to tell the whole story in even a generously packed two-disc collection like this one would be absurd from the get-go. The guy bleeds accolades; considering over the course of nearly five decades, Cooder’s entire body of solo work, all of his collaborations and all of his critical praise both sophisticated and sensationalist (Rolling Stone’s much-remarked-on 100 Greatest Guitarists of All-Time list slotted him at a debatably accurate numero ocho.) remains both the dream of geeky completists and esoterica hounds and the nightmare of anyone into the whole neat-and-tidy brevity thing.
What makes The UFO Has Landed, therefore, so potent—so useful—it passes all of the collection-album litmus tests despite the omissions, the de-contextualized selections and the other flaws inherent to the format. Cooder’s son, Joachim, made the tough selections and largely succeeds. If you came in unfamiliar with Cooder the musician—or more aware of Cooder the collaborator, producer or slide guitarist for hire—you leave with enough grasp on his musical personality to form an educated opinion. You also get a comprehensive look at the styles that stir him most—earlier blues and country-based rock, later different strains of country and a lot of the regional and internationally ethnic music-style infusions he fancies—and find many a launching pad to investigate his full albums and delve deeper into chosen points of his long, varied career. You will not be confused either; The UFO Has Landed focuses squarely on Ry Cooder-as-bandleader and Ry Cooder-as-songwriter, knowing full well Ry Cooder-as-collaborator is a whole different, oft-flummoxing constellation of his career.
Just what do we have in UFO’s 34 tracks? Well, for starters, a fast-moving collage of mostly superior early Cooder mixed in sometimes comfortably and sometimes clumsily with film-soundtrack work and later efforts. The classic stuff still goes down easiest: Cooder lets his slide guitar do the talking for most of the Johnny Cash-associated “Get Rhythm”; paints with alternately dramatic and delicate slide brushstrokes in the instrumental, aptly titled “Low—Commotion”; and finds no need to overdue the Leadbelly tribute “On a Monday” with excessive shows of force. For all his guitar virtuosity, Cooder plays to his primary strength of being clean in his execution, which harkens back to the no-notes-wasted blues attacks of Hubert Sumlin and others who know they find something more—more effect, more feeling, more portent—by not gilding the lilly. Even in frothier numbers like “Let’s Work Together”, which in its creole-blues gumbo features Cooder doing a good-natured stare down with Buckweat Zydeco on buoyant accordion, Cooder’s licks feel tastefully pointed, not histrionic.
As a vocalist, Cooder classifies as similarly self-aware; he won’t push himself much beyond his comfort zone of expression, but that also plays into his stark, minimalist execution. His expert turns through “Billy the Kid”, the often-covered “Boomer’s Story”, the standard “Jesus On the Mainline” or Josh White’s “Tamp ‘Em Up Solid” (the last two from the closest thing to a definitive Cooder album, 1974’s Paradise and Lunch) are subtly moving. And he offers a chuckle or two: The cheeky take on Billy Emerson’s “Crazy Bout My Automobile (Every Woman I Know)” categorizes as dry, salty Cooder humor.
Listening to UFO as a whole over a steady period reveals its final strength: It’s definitely an album, not just a sturdy hodgepodge. You get over your omission disappointments (like 1978’s Jazz) very quickly and appreciate how this Cooder assemblage demonstrates, from 1 to 34, Cooder’s ability to link themes, genealogies and musical styles, exploring them according to his own interests. He won’t let himself corrupt individual styles, but he won’t stay beholden to whatever porous bonds exist for them. For conveying that alone, a compelling collection has been created.