Cake or Death Label: Ever
“‘Cake or death?’ ‘Uh, cake, please.’ ‘Well, we’re out of cake! We only had three bits, and we didn’t expect such a rush! So what’ll it be?’ ‘What, so my choice is ‘or death’? Well, then, I’ll have the chicken, please!’”
After being diagnosed with terminal renal cancer, country singer Lee Hazlewood made a move that inevitably (but understandably) drew comparisons to Warren Zevon’s The Wind: he decided that what he really wanted to do was make one last album.
To jump back for a moment, it’s very possible that you might not even be familiar with Lee Hazlewood, given that his discography – most of which was recorded in the ‘60s and ‘70s – doesn’t tend to get a lot of play outside of hipster circles. Rest assured, however, that you are familiar with at least one of his compositions: “These Boots Are Made for Walkin.’” It’s been recorded countless times, including a new rendition on Cake and Death by Hazlewood (with guest guitar by Duane Eddy), but it’s the Nancy Sinatra version that’s considered definitive, which is appropriate, given that she and Hazlewood recorded three albums together. Sinatra’s absence from this disc is notable, but perhaps she felt that she and Lee got sufficient closure with 2004’s Nancy and Lee 3. More likely, it’s because Hazelwood’s musical last will and testament goes out of its way to avoid being an all-star event; it’s more of a family affair, complete with a version of “Some Velvet Morning” performed by his 9-year-old granddaughter, Phaedra. (In a spoken-word intro, Hazlewood reveals that she believes it was written by her grandfather for her.) The only arguable celebrity guest is the aforementioned Eddy – who can also be heard providing his signature licks over “The First Song of the Day” – and since he’s a longtime friend of Hazlewood’s, he hardly counts.
Cake or Death does, at least, provide a pair of male-female duets that hark back to Hazlewood’s work with Sinatra. His co-vocalist on “Nothing” is German singer Lula, who provides a sexy coo that’s on par with Nancy’s, while he teams with Ann-Kristin Hedmark for the more traditional country of “Please Come Home To Boston” (which is a little surprising when you consider that Hedmark is actually one of Scandinavia’s leading jazz singers). In addition to the appearance by Hazlewood’s granddaughter, there’s another solo vocal spot on the album: “She’s Gonna Break Some Heart Tonight,” sung by Tommy Parsons. (Said Hazlewood, “He literally saved my life some time ago, so this is a promise given and a promise kept.”)
Hazlewood gets political on “Baghdad Nights” and “Anthem”; the former is one of the best songs on the album, with various portions being driven by horns, guitar, and flute, while the latter could be a Kinky Friedman song, with its refrain of “I always did what my mother told me / But I never did vote Republican.” “Fred Freud,” meanwhile, can best be described as an intellectual waltz, with its narrator namedropping Bach, Mozart, and Stravinsky as possible cures for his patient’s neuroses.
Hazlewood’s voice isn’t what you’d call smooth; the cover photo, which shows him puffing on a cigarette, is a clue as to what you can expect. But, then, he’s from the era of country music when you could get away with intoning your lyrics rather than actually singing them, and his charm allows him to get away with it – particularly on the tearjerker of a closing track, “T.O.M. (The Old Man),” where he asks the rhetorical question, “In this place called forever, will there be any songs to sing?”
Cake or Death is an album that, no matter how good it is, still comes too late in his career for him to be able to pull off a proper comeback. As a closing salvo, however, it’s a fine farewell to a unique talent…and if inspires people to go check out his back catalog, more’s the better.