HERE'S TO HAZELWOOD! 

HERE'S TO HAZELWOOD!

Total Lee!

The Songs of Lee Hazelwood

Various Artists

(Astralwerks)

Not all tribute albums are nightmarish messes. The second volume of the Rolling Stones tribute series, Uncut, had some good stuff by Lambchop and the MC5. And there was that version of Springsteen's Nebraska a couple of years ago on Sub Pop that featured great covers of "Highway Patrolman" and "Downbound Train" by Dar Williams and Raul Malo of the Mavericks, respectively. That record also featured some embarrassing denture whistle from Johnny Cash on "I'm on Fire." (Yes, he's an icon and very ill, but a little Poli-Grip would affix that upper plate securely.)

Lee Hazelwood has always been a storyteller in his songs, kind of like a non-redneck Tom T. Hall with a functioning neocortex. (Hazelwood has lived rough, but he's never been as scary-looking as Hall, who resembles a golem at times.) And in recent years, he has experienced a resurgence in popularity. The stuff he recorded with Nancy Sinatra and on his own 30-plus years ago now sounds cool and ironic instead of corny and overblown (as his material did to this reviewer at the time).

So it was inevitable that a Lee Hazelwood tribute record would eventually appear. Several of these remakes best the Hazelwood originals, which is not that difficult a task, considering how tame and dated much of Hazelwood's recorded work sounds today. Tribute compiler Wyndham Wallace deserves credit for picking mainly moody and somewhat obscure Hazelwood tunes to redo here. The matching of contributors with songs is mostly genius, particularly professional Southern geek Johnny Dowd's take on Hazelwood's California hippie-lifestyle anthem "Sleep in the Grass." Dowd's "I'm gonna cut you" shtick finds its proper application on this grotesque remake.

However, K Records majordomo/head doofus Calvin Johnson stinks up the joint with a truly horrific reading of "Sand," on which he adopts an affected baritone croak (as bad as Cash's denture whistle). Not too many big names here (unless you count Evan Dando and Jarvis Crocker as biz heavyweights), but the use of less well known artists emphasizes the songs over big-name singers. Total Lee is that rarest of creatures, a tribute record that improves on the originals. --

Grade: B+

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