Lee Hazlewood, who died last August at age 78, was an ingenious goof. The songwriter, producer, and rumbler— singer isn't quite the word—secured his place in history with "These Boots Are Made for Walking," the 1966 hit he created for his protégé Nancy Sinatra. That song summed up his aesthetic, with its cartoonish country-western ambiance and lyrics that hover just this side of kitsch, all overlaid with casually brilliant sonic invention. It was Sinatra's feisty vocal (and high hemlines) that captured the zeitgeist and turned "Boots" into a proto-feminist anthem. But a typically audacious bit of Hazlewoodian studio magic made it leap from the radio: that drooping, descending bass line, panned to the far left side of the stereo spectrum, while an acoustic guitar jangled in the right channel. As with so much of Hazlewood's music, "Boots" served up its trippiness with tongue-in-cheek. Psychedelia never sounded so droll.
The records Hazlewood made with Sinatra are famous, and for a moment in the mid-'60s, they made him a sort of star, or at least a well-known curio—the beast to Sinatra's beauty in duets like "Summer Wine" and "Some Velvet Morning." These hits brought a weirdness to the pop charts that must have baffled many radio listeners, even in 1967, a golden age of freaky pop. "Some Velvet Morning" (1967) in particular is High Hazlewood, a psychedelic spaghetti western, with lavish string orchestration, jarring key changes, and a lyric that swings from hippie mumbo jumbo to sleazy double-entendre: "Some velvet morning when I'm straight/ I'm gonna open up your gate."
But Hazlewood's best, most deliciously off-kilter music is found on his solo recordings, which sold few copies and until recently were little known outside of a tiny core of fans and collectors. In part, this was Hazelwood's doing. At the height of his post-"Boots" success, Hazlewood decamped to Sweden, one of several perverse career moves he made over the years. (This was a man who titled a would-be comeback album: Farmisht, Flatulence, Origami, ARF!!! & Me... .) It wasn't until the 1990s, when Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth began reissuing the solo albums on his Smells Like Records label, that Hazlewood took his place alongside Serge Gainsbourg and Captain Beefheart and other mavericks in the rock snob pantheon.
Now, with Hazlewood's death, more music is emerging from the vaults, filling in the gaps in a discography that remains patchy for all but the most intrepid eBayers. The trusty reissue label Rhino has released Strung Out on Something New, a limited-edition two-disc set culled from recordings Hazlewood made for Reprise Records between 1964 and '68. (You can listen to clips from the box set here.) Among other things, Strung Out deepens appreciation for Hazlewood's industry: At the peak of his hit-making run with Sinatra, he maintained a feverish schedule of writing and producing for other artists, and found the time to make his own records, where he could indulge his muse completely.
Exhibit A on the new Rhino box is Hazlewood's second solo album, The N.S.V.I.P.'s (Not So Very Important People) (1964), included here in its entirety. Sonically, the album is stark: just Hazlewood's voice accompanied by guitarist Al Casey, picking out blues and loping cowboy ballads on a 12-string acoustic. The accompaniment is deadpan, but the songs themselves are whacked-out. A vague theme album about a tumbledown town populated by eccentrics—probably loosely based on Hazlewood's hometown, Mannford, Okla.—The N.S.V.I.P.'s finds Hazlewood singing, often in a heavy backcountry drawl, about death, drinking, hatred of big cities, and the 1964 presidential race. But the songs proper are only half the fun—sometimes, less than half. Each track features a rambling spoken introduction in which Hazlewood waxes … Dadaist is probably the best way to put it. "I Had a Friend" begins: "Did you ever notice that some people don't even think [long pause] let alone act like other people? Now, you take Tarzan. … Did you know Tarzan ain't never been vaccinated for smallpox?" "I'm Gonna Fly": "Dirk Thornton thinks he's a goose." The album opener, "First Street Blues," starts with a story about a dragon named Leroy who panhandles on street corners. The results sound like children's stories—as narrated by a man whom any sensible parent wants to keep a good several miles from his child.
Like nearly all of Hazlewood's work, The N.S.V.I.P.'s is disconcertingly funny. A listener is uncertain whether to take the songs seriously—and even when you're sure Hazlewood is joshing, it's unclear if the jokes are for your enjoyment or at your expense. The unease is heightened, delightfully, in the full-band records included on the Rhino box. Studio production was Hazlewood's first and greatest gift; had he never written or sung a single song, Hazlewood would have warranted a place in pop annals for a single sonic epiphany at the beginning of his career, in the late 1950s. While working with rockabilly great Duane Eddy, Hazlewood stuck a microphone and amplifier in a grain elevator to produce the eerie echo effect that would define twang rock. It would become Hazelwood's sonic signature: Swathing his songs in reverb, he evoked the vastness of the dust bowl, actual and existential, in which so many of his stories were laid.
That big, resonant sound is all over Strung Out on Something New. You hear it on the selections from Hazlewood's Friday's Child (1965)—one of his more straightforward country and western albums—and on the several songs he produced for other artists featured on the box set, including singles by Eddy, Sanford Clark, Deana Martin, and Jack Nitzsche. (Nitzsche's "Zapata" is a minor landmark of Tex-Mex pop.) The sonic standouts, though, are the selections from Love and Other Crimes (1968), a nearly perfect fusion of easy listening balladeering, and psychedelia, with Hazlewood's reverb-swaddled vocals booming above almost comically lush string orchestrations. The title track, one of Hazlewood's great concoctions, boosts an upright bass in the mix to perform a pas de deux with the singer's burring vocal—a low, lonesome sound. And then there's "Rainbow Woman," with woodwinds swirling atop an insistent backbeat as Hazlewood croons a cryptic chorus: "Rainbow woman rainbow/ Rainbow woman woman/ Rainbow woman!" It's either one of the great pieces of pseudo-spiritual late '60s doggerel or a perfect parody thereof.
In fact, it's probably a little of each. On the recordings from his late '60s/early '70s heyday, Hazlewood is impossible to pin down. He inhabits a place between genres and generations—it was the superhero of the musical old guard, Frank Sinatra, who hired Hazlewood to give Nancy's career a kickstart—and his music mixed affection for and ironic distance from both rock and prerock pop. He was, in short, one of the first full-fledged pop post-modernists. (Little wonder he's a favorite of Beck.) Hazlewood's genius was to unswervingly walk the line between sincerity and smarm, without toppling over onto either side, a feat that gives his records their richly unsettling quality. You don't have to choose funny, satirical Hazlewood or brooding, existentialist Hazlewood—the point is to soak up both and revel in the cognitive dissonances. "First Street Blues" is a great example of the Hazlewoodian uncanny. If you follow the spoken intro, it's clear that song is being sung in the voice of a drunken dragon. But the melody has a lovely lilt, and the pathos of the lyric is undeniable: "Every little grape calls my name/ As it climbs on the fire/ And makes the fire burn higher/ Higher than it's ever been/ Time and space mean nothing then."
In 2006, Hazlewood released his valedictory album, Cake or Death, recorded while he was dying of renal cancer. On that final record's final song, "T.O.M. (The Old Man)," Hazlewood actually doffed his mask, staring down death, for once, without a big sidelong wink. "Have you seen the mountains?/ They still hug the snow," Hazlewood sang. "And have you seen the old man?/ He's ready to go." This moment of pure emotional nakedness was touching but jarringly un-Hazlewood-like. Strung Out on Something New gives us the familiar, irresistible Hazlewood: singing in a voice swamped in reverb, with an audible twinkle in his eye, and his tongue in cheek.