Imposing baritones, orchestral sweeps, and curious couplings of drama and whimsy honestly, could we ask for better components to soundtrack a year of such 11th-hour intensity, a year of struggle and strife and the unspeakably surreal, mercifully offset by glimmers of giddiness at the prospect of something altogether new? The gift of hope delivered to us on Nov. 4 was a lovely early Christmas treat, but let's face it: all of that waiting made 2008 a year of epic proportions. How fitting, then, that I ticked off the months with a steady stereo stream of theatrics, and that guiding most of them was the spirit of an Oklahoma Dust Bowl refugee who subverted pop music by embracing the machine while still trying to tear it down and start anew. The godfather of cowboy psychedelia, the architect of the saccharine underground, the original pop iconoclast himself: Lee Hazlewood.
Hazlewood's greatest gift both as a solo artist and as the cranky-baritoned foil to the sugary Nancy Sinatra was his ability to take the supposedly disparate genres of pop, country, and lounge music and rub them against one another to riveting, highly cinematic effect. Heaped in heavy echo and bolstered by gushing string arrangements, delivered with the skill of a raconteur and bristling with unexpected juxtapositions, his music remains as head-swimmingly oddball as ever.
This year saw the return of three leading carriers of Hazlewood's quixotic torch. Lambchop's OH (Ohio) (Merge) offers more cryptic, disheveled elegance from the Nashville band, while the twisted lounge and heavy-ballad wooziness of Tindersticks' The Hungry Saw (Constellation) gives a worthy update to Hazlewood's signature tearjerker "My Autumn's Done Come" vibraphone and all. Not to be outdone, Nick Cave temporarily tables his more-recent chest thumping for big-screen melodrama on a few moments of Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (Anti-): on "Jesus of the Moon," in particular, he and his Bad Seeds serve up Hazlewood-worthy western-skied balladry.
Cue the strings! With its sumptuously reverb-steeped production, punchy brass, and colossal orchestrations, the Last Shadow Puppets' The Age of the Understatement (Domino) proves to be just as indebted to Hazlewood's studio wizardry as it is to its obvious Swinging London signifiers. Local chanteuse Kira Lynn Cain floats out haunted refrains of the legend's twang-cabaret on her billowing beauty The Ideal Hunter (Evangeline), while the desert panoramas of Calexico's Carried to Dust (Quarterstick) provide a testimonial to the power of Hazlewood's beloved mariachi horns. Seekers of the heir apparent to the vocalist's wry, croaking country wordsmithery should look no further than the parallel honky-tonk universe of the Silver Jews' Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (Drag City). Lastly, Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan pick up the familiar Nancy and Lee story line and flip the script: on their Sunday at Devil Dirt (Fontana International), Campbell assumes the male, Svengali role of Hazlewood, writing all of the words and arrangements, and Lanegan becomes the gravel-diva counterpart to Sinatra. The result is ravishingly weepy orchestral pop and off-kilter country-blues rambles. Would Hazlewood approve? Total-Lee.