Album: Ry Cooder, I, Flathead
At a time when we're constantly being instructed to forget the supposedly outmoded notion of the album and learn to consume our music track by downloaded track, it takes courage to release a concept album, and something close to mad faith in one's art to release three in succession, as Ry Cooder has.
I, Flathead is the final part of a California Trilogy which began with the superb Chavez Ravine and continued with My Name Is Buddy, charting the state's history as promised land of the dispossessed.
Compared to the displaced Mexican immigrants and dust-bowl refugees of those previous albums, the hot rod-racing Western Swing musician at the core of I, Flathead might seem to have things easy, but neither cars nor country music assures the hapless Kash Buk of life's comforts: as he acknowledges late on, looking back on his life, he's acquired little besides a Cadillac, a trailer, and 5,000 country songs that nobody wants to sing. Indeed, his tale may be the saddest of all, as his dreams are dashed from the loftier perspective of post-war affluence and confidence.
The early stages find the petrolhead Kash in feisty mood, his character neatly summed up by Drive Like I Never Been Hurt"and the brusque rocker, Waitin' For Some Girl: seeking kicks and speed as a salt-flat racer, unable to form deep relationships, and with an outlaw wanderlust streak ignited by hearing Johnny Cash on the radio. Racing takes a back seat as Kash and his band The Klowns tour roadhouse bars, their passage marked by the full complement of Cooder's musical character: the loose-limbed, Stonesy raunch of Ridin' With the Blues, the sprightly blacklist blues Pink-O Boogie, the strutting cumbia Fernando Se", the conjunto romance Filipino Dance Hall Girl and the country appreciation Steel Guitar Heaven.
Kash's own band is probably best evoked in Spayed Kooley, a tribute to his guard dog £ his own "homeland security" £ in the Western Swing style of Spade Cooley.
Interspersed among the songs are Kash Buk's personal ruminations on his situation, phone calls home and bar-room soliloquies set to the shifting sonic backdrops Cooder drew on in his Nineties work. Accompanied by a 95-page novella, the result is a diversely detailed portrait of outlaw spirits in a land of shrinking opportunities, where lives are built on dreamy foundations, and broken by disillusion.
The trilogy offers an alternative history of a state which prizes myths and fanciful lies over stark reality.