Blues with a feeling -- and a good dose of humor
Ted Cooper's "Marbles" could be roughly categorized as roots music, but that covers a lot of ground, ranging from driving, down-and-dirty blues-band stuff to small lyrical masterpieces accompanied by little more than Cooper's own acoustic guitar.
A hallmark of much of this album is the unselfconscious humor that runs through it, even in the otherwise serious stuff. Cooper's "Lines" may be the only love song in the world on record with the words "pliers," "raccoon" and "pyromaniac" in it. But he makes it work, with a hook that won't let you go. Who could argue with "When your mouth breaks into that pretty smile, you know I'd walk a country mile for you, baby for you."
"Sara Lee" is one of those chugging blues numbers with a freight-train tempo. If the title reminds you of a certain line of frozen desserts, it's no coincidence. "Sara Lee, you know I like you warm and free," Cooper sings, "but when you're frozen, baby, you ain't no good to me."
"Bound for Glory" sounds like it could be sung in a lot of black churches, with its stomping rhythm, its multi-voice choruses and its returning-sinner allusions: "I'm bound for glory on the midnight train, gonna let that train take me home." The honking mouth-harp ties it all up nicely.
Cooper's father passed away not long before this record was released, and "Daddy" is a touching inclusion. I don't know whether it was written prior to or following his Dad's death, but lyrics like "Daddy, hear my song, it's reaching out to you" are a beautiful send-off, incorporating a heartfelt thank-you along with an expression of the pain of parting.
Several of the songs on "Marbles" make passing reference to Israel, where Cooper spent several years in the 1980s. In fact, he became known there as Israel's "father of the blues," thanks to his central role in popularizing the genre in the Holy Land. On "Sea of Galilee," a song with a jazzy feel and a twittering-birds-and-crickets intro, Israel isn't just alluded to, it's front and center. It's an atmospheric piece, musically and lyrically, replete with images - past, present and future, real and imaginary. There are flying fish, shooting stars, a burning bush, a croaking frog, a wailing wall and a giggling girl in a crystal ball.
The rootedness of "Sea" contrasts strikingly with the wistful rootlessness of "I Ain't Got No Home In This World," with a tune you'll have trouble getting out of your head.
I'm not going to comment on every last song, even though I'm leaving out some excellent ones, but I can't end this review without mentioning the hilarious "Waitress Song." It's more poem than song, spoken in a Tom Waitsy growl, accompanied only by bass, drums, clattering plates and background chatter, and it commiserates with the plight of waitresses everywhere. "One wants an ash tray, one wants a spoon, one wants a table with a view of the moon."
If you ever get a chance to see Ted Cooper play live, don't miss it. But in the meantime, "Marbles" is a great intro to this very talented singer-songwriter-bluesman.