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Friday, Oct. 10, 2008

Ry Cooder

I, Flathead (Nonesuch)

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  Ry Cooder's California trilogy started purposefully and thematically with Chavez Ravine, turned old-time-radio wistful on My Name is Buddy, and now takes a complete header into the deep end for the concluding I, Flathead.

  Assuming the point of view of Western bar band Kash Buk and the Klowns, Cooder opens with "Drive Like I Never Been Hurt." As a confessional-with-heart, it's full of the promise of the open road ahead, despite being overwrought with Tex-Mex horns and orchestration. Unfortunately, Cooder's continual ransacking of genres never really allows the album to find traction, and much of Flatheadfeels rutted in the awkward neutral zones between classifications.

  Amid the blue-blooded country ("Spayed Kooley"), driving blues ("Ridin' With the Blues") and mangy roots ("Waitin' for Some Girl") is a constant Latin influence, some spoken word and even a lazy lounge ballad ("My Dwarf is Getting Tired"). It's a bit like the eclecticism of Los Lobos, multiplied and unfocused.

  As a singer, Cooder occasionally resembles Milwaukee's own Eric Blowtorch, his earnest hepcat sling of a delivery combining swing and literate humor ("Steel Guitar Heaven"). There are also hues of Tom Waits and a Beat wink with the spoken-word charmer "Can I Smoke In Here?" But Cooder's apparent discomfort in his own voice rings too, such as on "Johnny Cash," where it sounds more like he's channeling Joaquin Phoenix than the Man in Black.

  Somewhere within these albums is a sweeping statement about America, a sweaty Sam Peckinpah/Cormac McCarthy vision of from whence we came and where we're headed. Collectively, though, it all adds up to Flathead's resounding variety: a jumbled mlange, a melting-pot ode to hard times, bad cars, lone renegades and driving 'til the wheels fall off. Too bad that's what happens to Flathead.