I, Flathead, being billed as the final album in Ry Cooder’s California trilogy that also includes Chavez Ravine and My Name Is Buddy, has a concept worthy of a Hunter Thompson fever dream about the 1950s. It features 14 songs “by” the fictional Kash Buk and the Clowns, a batch of pre-pop culture California wild boys who drank hard, played country boogie, raced cars on salt flats, and had a weak spot for circus sideshows, Communists and easy women. Kash also has a relationship with an alien named Shakey—or so we’re told in the hardbound book that is part of this CD’s deluxe edition.
The reach exceeds the grasp too often to rank this as one of Cooder’s top-shelf projects, such as Chavez or Bop Til You Drop. The alien thing, for instance, doesn’t work at all. And a certain dated hipsterism rears its head sometimes, when spoken-word segments get too cutesy (“Fernando Sez”) or the subject matter becomes strained and corny (“Spayed Kooley”). Cooder's voice occasionally sounds grizzled, and this is also not a great guitar album—fancy slide work is often downplayed in favor of a more laid-back, atmospheric sound that includes Hawaiian guitar, Mariachi horns and country boogie.
But there are satisfying peak moments—songs like “Waitin’ for Some Girl,” “Pink-O Boogie” and “Drive Like I Never Been Hurt.” During those moments, Flathead is revving on all cylinders, combining Cooder’s laconic country-soul tunes (or hot rockabilly) with clever wordplay worthy of a Nick Lowe, and hell’s-afire middle-aged rock yelping like John Hiatt. And you think, wow, Little Village redux. Maybe that should be his next project.