Review Summary: Space cowboy!
When I think of Lee Hazlewood, I think of Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker”. Not because Lee seems like a joke – even if his existence is a pretty funny moment in pop history – instead, I think of the opening lines “Some people call me the space cowboy, yeah / Some people call me the gangster of love”
. That pretty much sums up Lee for me. His pop-psychedelic-country mix, charred voice and phenomenal moustache conjure up an image teetering on the edge of ridiculousness; like a ‘70s porn star taming horses on the psychedelic frontier, only sanitised for family audiences.
‘60s-era Nancy Sinatra invites other images entirely, but we don’t need to go into that.
Around the same time as her confusingly incestuous duet with father Frank Sinatra (“Something Stupid” - notable for chart success, continued popularity on BBC Radio 2 and its disturbing Wikipedia entry), Nancy was busy working with Lee: culminating in ‘68’s Nancy and Lee
and laying the country-psychedelic duet foundation for more modern couples like MV + EE.
Or even, as it is very explicitly stated on Bandcamp, 17f. 17f never used to be a duo – it started life as a solo project of Swiss Fred Merk, who made a uniquely folk-American blend of experimental, psychedelic collages – and in fact it still isn’t, it’s more of a band, but for the purpose of Two Cowboy Songs
we can pretend. The album is a direct response to the classic late-‘60s work from Nancy and Lee which, as long as “These Boots Made for Walking” inspires some kind of ‘oh that!’
, should be familiar. As such, expect a toning down of 17f’s more experimental trappings for a focus on classic country vibes with a lo-fi psychedelic hum.
Still, no matter how hard we wish it were otherwise it isn’t the ‘60s anymore. Psychedelic has never been the same since popular culture grasped the basics of what a hippy was and country, especially in this “inspired-by” context, is almost incomparable to its original roots. We’re left with a really interesting mix of aesthetics: on one hand, deliciously rough-and-ready Americana; on the other, a broad psychedelic scope appropriating as much from New Age as from Lee and Nancy’s poppier ‘60s fuzz.
This plays out differently for both tracks. “Penelope Ward” slips from its flute intro to a wistful Joni Mitchell-takes-peyote-on-the-ranch tone. Charmingly intimate vocals from Aurelia Emery flow over psychedelic-enough finger picking and classic sliding country licks, before Fred’s hushed tones take over and the song begins to escalate to a soothing whirl of complementary guitars.
“The Naughty Ballad of Lucy and Sean” is more in keeping with older 17f’s older work, with the “country” half of this psychedelic-country project referring more to the style of recent Nick Cave and True Detective opening credits: southern gothic or southern noir or whatever we’re calling it now. The song sounds more sinister, disorientating, and the back-and-forth between vocalists Sean Brooks and Laure Betris is gritty, sexualised and in general less cute than the first track would lead you to expect. It’s a more interesting aesthetic too, but balances out with a slight clumsiness in an attempt to ramp up the intensity. The high-pitching chants and electric guitar work in the end, but that isn’t entirely obvious at the start.
In other words, Two Cowboy Songs
is split very evenly between those two lines of “The Joker”. First, 17f’s the space cowboy
, then the gangster of love
. In both, they do a great homage to golden-era Nancy and Lee while keeping in modern, keeping it interesting, and keeping in that sullen quirkiness that had Fred creating a song in 2012 centered on one repeated lyric: “give me some booze”.