On

"I, Flathead" (Nonesuch, A) Ry Cooder

's last in a trilogy of albums loosely focused on Southern California history, the man is really in his element.

For starters, he's serving up deliciously twisted tales, focused on a bygone California that celebrated sci-fi B-movies, hot-rod racing in the desert and twangy, tangy, salt-of-the-earth roadhouse music.

Better yet, this killer guitarist is rocking his box like we haven't heard him do in eons.

Also cool, the project provides multimedia giggles. It's told both in a full-length CD and (if you buy the deluxe edition) a 97-page novella, also written by Cooder.

The disc's focus is on the songs of Kash Buk - a fictional, struggling country/twang rock musician and car racer. Taking on this guise, Cooder gets to work through some of his favorite finger-pickin' styles, from the Cantina rock of "Filipino Dance Hall Girl" to the Rolling Stones-evoking "Riding With the Blues."

There are also glorious tributes to country greats, including the most-amazing "5000 Country Music Songs," "Johnny Cash" and a playful ode to Western swing man "Spade Cooley."

Read along in the entertaining book for weird plot lines also involving a mysterious mechanic/speed racer from another planet, a nasty Cadillac-driving Ford dealer, some dislocated Japanese- Americans and lots more about the young woman who inspired Kash/Ry's song "Little Tron Girl."

GIRLS GONE WILD: The sweetheart of "High School Musical," Vanessa Hudgens, is trying sooooo hard to grow up and out on "Identified" (Hollywood, C+). Sadly, the set's focus on electro-percolated and hip-hop-flavored dance pop ain't all that different from the assembly-line stuff other young pop tarts (and their creative advisers) are baking these days. Sample thought: "You got the money money, she's got the hottie body, we wanna party party, hook it all up." Yeah, it's all deep like that.

Fans of Bonnie Raitt-style sultry blues rock will feel in a similar comfort zone with Deborah Bonham on "Duchess"( Atco, B-). Name familiar? She's the sister of long-gone Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham.

Like her late dad (Harry), Jen Chapin knows how to sell a song with a lemony tart vocal delivery. On her intimate, acoustic-minded disc with the Rosetta Trio, "Light of Mine" (Purple Chair Music, B+), Chapin focuses mostly on covers but uncovers nuances not noticed before on David Bowie's "Starman," Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic," Stevie Wonder's "You Haven't Done Nothin' " (a special fave), as well as songs by John Lennon, Joni Mitchell and two from Bruce Springsteen - the shattering "America Skin (41 Shots)" and "Born in the U.S.A.," where Jen works major bluesy changes to make the words jump.

AMERICA, AMERICA: Just in time for July 4th, narrator/producer Kenny Gamble has teamed with the Temple University Symphony Orchestra and Choirs and soloist Patti LaBelle to serve up "I Am An American" (Philadelphia International, B). It's a lush, stout-hearted symphonic tone poem to brother- (and sister-) hood and patriotism. Gamble credits the six-minute creation to the late spiritual leader Father Divine and his International Peace Mission. Get it as a digital download or locally as a limited-edition pressing at the National Constitution Center and Independence Visitor Center.

"Patriotic Country 3" (MusicSpace, B) compiles flag-wavers from country stars old and new - Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Kenny Rogers to Gretchen Wilson, Travis Tritt and Sugarland. A "portion" of the proceeds goes to our military families.

MORE PHILLY WISDOM: Some argue that the best thing we can do for America (and ourselves) is to think green and eat green. That's the message of Philly's vegetarian-themed rockers GreenBeings, serving up a fun-filled basket of musical message songs, "Electric Green" (www.greenbeingsmusic.com, B+).

I was especially taken with the spiritual arguments that "Jesus Was a Flexitarian" and the rocking, be your own kind of vegetarian "Some Monks," plus the re-tuned, reggae-styled Old MacDonald's lament "Mad Cow Farm."

VIDEO CORNER: Don't want to spend the big bucks for John Mayer's live show next week in Camden? Catch this age- and genre-gapping pop rocker in top form "Where The Light Is - Live in Los Angeles" (Columbia, A), a three-set (acoustic, trio and band) concert available today on standard-definition DVD, high-def Blu-Ray and double CD formats.

Also new on video is Neil Diamond's "The Thank You Australia Concert" (Eagle Vision, B-), captured way back in 1976 before 38,000 people, and many more watching on TV. His repertoire wasn't so large then, and the band just so-so, yet Neil sure had his schtick together, rousing the audience with "Cherry Cherry," "Sweet Caroline" and "Song Sung Blue." He's back at the Wachovia Center Aug. 9.

While waiting for Hippiefest (July 29 at the Mann), "Go Ride the Music" (Eagle Vision, B) with San Francisco bands shot live in 1969. The Jefferson Airplane are especially well-served. Also on this DVD are jammy concert performances from Quicksilver Messenger Service and a second video program, "West Pole," featuring the pioneering girl group Ace of Cups, Steve Miller and a woozy video with the Grateful Dead. *