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Ry Cooder has always been a musical storyteller, from his self-titled debut album (which featured both well-known and under-recognized folk, blues, swing, and jug tunes) to Boomer’s Story, his last two offerings for Nonesuch (Chavez Ravine and My Name Is Buddy), and his many film scores (including those for The Long Riders, Paris, Texas, Last Man Standing, Geronimo, and The End of Violence, just to mention a few). When his contributions as a musicologist, producer, and collaborator — such as his contributions to the various Buena Vista Social Club recordings (including the film score) and his work with V.M. Bhatt, Pops Staples, Ersi Arvizu, and guitarist Manuel Galbán of Los Zafiros — are included, he becomes a genuine mythmaker. I, Flathead contributes to the weight of Cooder’s legend in many ways. First, there’s the title, an obvious nod to the late Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot; then there’s the legend — the entire story is told in a 100-page, hardbound novella that accompanies the Deluxe Edition — about beatnik, country music nut, and salt-flats racer Kash Buk, his band the Klowns, the strange and wonderful extraterrestrial visitor called Shakey, and the Passenger who pursues him. It’s even subtitled “The Songs of Kash Buk and the Klowns.” Finally, there’s the music; it’s a set of 14 original tunes that employ everything from country rockabilly to blues; strange, shimmering exotica; and Latin-influenced rock, swing, and mariachi music.
Musically, there isn’t anything here you haven’t heard from Cooder before, but it’s shaken and stirred differently and owes a nod or two to Tom Waits’ deadpan storytelling manner. This album doesn’t have the futuristic Latin groove of Chavez Ravine or the traveling dust-bowl balladic country and folk that was on My Name Is Buddy, but it is simultaneously as welcoming and off-putting as both those earlier records. The songs can be enjoyed with or without the novella, as they were meant to stand apart. The story in it is directly related, but there is a story the recording tells on its own. The sound of the record is frighteningly crystalline for roots-oriented music — the dirty-assed bottleneck slide guitar-fueled “Ridin’ with the Blues,” with drummer Jim Keltner and guitarist Rene Camacho, feels too clean despite its tempo and loose vibe. “Pink-O Boogie” follows with the same band — with added percussion from Joachim Cooder — but the groove is nastier and dirtier, and feels like it could have come from the Get Rhythm album in 1987. Near the end, Jesús Guzmán arranges some crazy string work to take it out. The rootsy rocker “Waitin’ for Some Girl,” where Cooder plays everything but drums (courtesy of Martin Pradler) sounds like a lost John Hiatt tune from Ry’s Slide Area period (it’s also better than anything that Hiatt has come up with himself in ages). Old pal Flaco Jiménez lends his accordion to “Filipino Dancehall Girl,” a beautiful norteño tune that is kissed by cha-cha in Joachim’s rhythms. “Spayed Kooley” is, as one might expect, a humorous Western swing jam, but played by a basic rock trio. And then there’s the beautifully articulated swing ballad “My Dwarf Is Getting Tired,” one of the more beautifully warm broken love songs Cooder has ever written — and the string touches by Guzmán make it a shuffling lounge fave. Ultimately, “quirky” doesn’t begin to describe I, Flathead, but it doesn’t have to: this disc is simultaneously both vintage and futuristic Cooder doing what he does best, offering listeners ghost traces of the past as they materialize on the dusty desert horizon like a mirage.