The final entry in Ry Cooderâ€™s California trilogy, I, Flathead finds Cooder exploring the Southern California drag-racing culture that centered on the stateâ€™s salt flats. Much like the first entry in the series, 2005â€™s Chavez Ravine, the album is an elegiac look at a part of California life that has vanished in the mists of time.
As is his wont, Cooder explores a myriad of musical genres, all of which serve to provide context for the stories that the songs tell. â€œJohnny Cashâ€ finds Cooder in full rockabilly mode as he fetes the Man in Black. Thereâ€™s western swing on â€œSteel Guitar Heaven,â€ country on â€œ5000 Country Songs,â€ the lounge music of the wonderfully titled â€œMy Dwarf Is Getting Tired,â€ a sort of Tom Waits noir growl â€œFlathead, One More Time,â€ and even doo-wop on the closing â€œLittle Trona Girl.â€ The glue that holds all of these disparate elements together is Cooderâ€™s impeccable guitar playing.
It wouldnâ€™t be a Ry Cooder album without a variety of Latin music influences present, and theyâ€™re here on the hysterically funny â€œFernando Sez,â€ and â€œFilipino Dance Hall Girl.â€ Not to worry, straight up rock â€˜nâ€™ roll is in evidence on songs like â€œWaiting for Some Girl.â€
Most of this is accomplished with a simple guitar, bass (Rene Camacho), and drums (Joachim Cooder, Jim Keltner, and Martin Pradler), but there are lovely moments when guests like accordion legend Flaco Jimenez get involved.
The album gives you the feeling that thereâ€™s a wonderful story being told, and so there is. The deluxe edition of the album is encased in a book that houses a novella. Much like the album the book is a series of stories written by Cooder, and is also called I, Flathead. The album can certainly be enjoyed without the book, but if the music interests you, spend a few extra bucks for the book. Itâ€™s a worthwhile read, and provides a deeper insight into the subject matter.
Ry Cooder has completed a wonderful American story. Sadly the second installment in the trilogy, last yearâ€™s My Name Is Buddy, doesnâ€™t quite measure up to the other two, but all in all, itâ€™s been a story worth telling, and worth hearing.