Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews

Ry Cooder – I, Flathead – Nonesuch

His third concept album, complete with a 104-page hardbound book that ties in with the songs.

Published on July 21, 2008

Ry Cooder – I, Flathead – Nonesuch
Ry Cooder – I, Flathead – Nonesuch 465916-2 ***** [Release date: July 22, 2008]:

(Ry Cooder – vocals, guitar, bass, mandolin; Joachim Cooder, drums; Rene Camacho, bass; Martin Pradler, drums; Jim Keltner, drums; Ron Blake, trumpet, Anthony Gil, bass sax, John Hassell, trumpet, Jared Smith, keyboards, Juliette Commagere, vocals, Flaco Jimenez, accordion, Jesus Guzman, strings arrangements,  plus mariachis and backup vocalists)

This is a quite brave and amazing concept album – a hardcover bound 104-page book (though small) with the CD in a pocket.  Perhaps the idea is to battle the digital downloads explosion with something really tangible that you can’t download off the Internet.  Moreover, this happens to be the third of a series of three such Cooder concept albums – his “California Triology.”  The first was “Chavez Ravine” – about the LA area bulldozed for Dodger Stadium, and the second, “My Name Is Buddy,” about the years of commie paranoia and union-busting.

The short chapters in the book tie in with the 14 songs on the CD and give them depth and meaning you wouldn’t get just from following along on the lyrics printed at the back of the book.  The album’s subtitle is “The Songs of Kash Buk and the Klowns.”  Kash is an itinerant and struggling country-western band leader whose good friend is the other main character in the stories – a Martian who goes by the name Shakey.  There is even a provided map of the area where everything takes place in the early 60s, in Inyo County, California.  I had to look it up in Google Earth just to make sure the towns and places weren’t part of Cooder’s surrealistic imagination. In Google Earth/Wikipedia, Trona (see “Little Trona Girl”) is known for “its isolation and desolation.” It has a giant dried-up lakebed where Kash and his friends who are drag racers and car junkies first meet the alien and his car with no wheels. There are also hundreds of huge pinnacles growing out of part of the lakebed, and one of the Planet of the Apes movies was shot there.

The stories are wonderful and explain many details heard in the song lyrics.  For example, how Kash’s dog got to be named Spayed Cooley.  The dramatic scene-setting couldn’t be better than Cooder brings it off in his spoken lyrics of “Can I Smoke In Here.” The atmosphere of Cooder’s vernacular American music is just right for each of the songs. The veneration the singer has for steel guitar music is celebrated in “Steel Guitar Heaven,” and I loved the chorus to “Ridin’ With the Blues.”  The chorus of track 11 is “’Cause my dwarf is getting tired and my fat man just won’t travel anymore.”  Believe it or not, that one ties into the stories too in a way. I’m reminded of some of Randy Newman’s songs, and Cooder had been a sideman for Newman. But whereas Newman sounds like the sophisticate he is, just putting on a redneck sensibility, Cooder makes you believe.

  1. Drive Like I Never Been Hurt
  2. Waitin’ for Some Girl
  3. Johnny Cash
  4. Can I Smoke In Here?
  5. Steel Guitar Heaven
  6. Ridin’ With the Blues
  7. Pink-O-Boogie
  8. Fernando Sez
  9. Spayed Kooley
10. Filipino Dance Hall Girl
11. My Dwarf Is Getting Tired
12. Flathead One More Time
13. 5000 Country Music Songs
14. Little Trona Girl

— John Henry

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