Various Artists: The Essential Phil Spector

Various Artists
The Essential Phil Spector

I was all psyched to write a polite rebuttal of Phil Spector’s (admittedly important) legacy, and then l did a search on Amazon for how many Spector collections were currently, readily available. Turns out that aside from the upcoming album box — with an accompanying review on this site — there’s also the one-disc Wall of Sound comp (19 songs) from earlier this year, an “early recordings” set, and now this two-disc Essential, wherein Sony/Legacy narrows down the 60 tracks from the Back to Mono box to a pretty solid 35. In terms of how they compare, here’s the short version: the original albums will soon be available for dedicatees and nostalgics, the one-CD comp is for the casual fan or curious prospective, and this two-CDer is for people somewhere in between. No songs from the classic Christmas album are included, wisely, and though there are a few very minor sins of omission (Darlene Love’s “Long Way to Be Happy”; the bass line in Ike & Tina’s “I’ll Never Need More Than This”), the compilers generally gather the goods. You can pick up the Wall of Sound disc, or you can spend about four bucks more for Essential and get “Spanish Harlem”, “Unchained Melody”, “To Know Him Is to Love Him”, and a lot of crap. Your choice. It’s weird, though. I mean, it’s almost as if people are cashing in on Spector — as though he’s been popular lately or something. What’s all that about? Where is ol’ Phil these days, anyway? Still nuts? (My sources are confirming that he is indeed still nuts.)

Though Spector’s legal woes — he allegedly killed somebody, remember? — could be distracting enough on their own (“Is This What I Get for Loving You?” is left out because of quality; “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” for more obvious reasons), they aren’t actually the main drawbacks here. In fact, Spector’s mesh of hefty orchestras with the fragile sentiment of young love (or lust) allows for a trifle like The Alley Cats’ “Puddin’ n’ Tain” to lead snugly into a true gem like The Crystals’ “Uptown” without even a blemish. His is a form that works well on its own patch of ground. It’s the sound itself that’s flawed.

The most egregious implication with a lot of discussion of Spector’s “wall of sound” — and it’s admittedly an underlying one — is that it’s somehow “atmospheric”. Some of his greatest singles do make astounding use of studio coloring (“Walking in the Rain”, anyone?), but where once these records may have played as vast, wide-screen and rapturous, their faded echo has lost some of its profundity, if indeed it ever had all that much of it. Spector’s is certainly an impressive aesthetic — the songs on Essential span 11 years, but they all sound like they could have been recorded on the same day. But even if rosy views of the world seen through smoggy Manhattan Novembers are forever, the sound can often be more of an obstacle than an asset. Where “Unchained Melody” and “River Deep, Mountain High” (his greatest production) still deliver because the vocalists swell and slam (respectively) in tandem with the arrangements, the less-inventive vocals — “I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine”; “Hold Me Tight”; everything by Bob B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans — sound submissive to bombastic, pallid sonics. This is not headphones music. But it should certainly be played loud.

But back to Bob B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans. This trio somehow gets three cuts on Essential, and each one is most assuredly awful. But they aren’t just awful, no. Their songs are so encompassingly, well-intentionedly obnoxious that you can’t merely ignore the triteness. It freezes you, so much so as to stop you from being able to think of anything else while the songs play. “Not Too Young to Get Married” is so lazily-arranged that it’d make a good argument against its own sentiment; “Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Hearts?” should never be confused with “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”; and the interesting chicken-scratch guitar that opens “Zip-a-Dee Doo Dah” precedes the worst song on the whole package. The fact that the latter song got to No. 8 on the Billboard charts and wound up with 13 weeks on said charts … well, that’s a good point for those who’d argue that the pop music of the ’60s was just as lackluster as today’s. They’re still wrong, of course .. but it’s a decent example.

Sound-wise, you can pretty much get the gist of Essential in comparison with Back to Mono by listening to those “Be My Baby” drums: there and elsewhere, the echo sticks on the thwack-ier sounds and winds up sounding more precise, which is probably a good thing, considering the comp’s subject. Mostly, though, the thing that’s made clearest is how these singers often had to bail out struggling material. Gene Pitney sounds vocally committed to “Every Breath I Take”, but the loud drum fills and strings seem to come from a different song. Ronnie’s anguished “you got somethin'” in “When I Saw You” alleviates sterile melodrama. Sometimes Spector gets by on a good hook that’s pure enough to carry the whole song with its brightness (“Da Doo Ron Ron”; Love’s “Wait ’til My Bobby Gets Home”), but personally, I’ve always felt that his beauty of singular instrumental tone was limited to the “Spanish Harlem” vibraphone and the gorgeous plucked-strings-with-Latin-guitar-scurries of “Uptown”. True New York sounds, those.

But what he lacked with the singular, Spector made up for with the sort of grand, unexpected flourishes that his production utilized (or exploited) from the get-go. Sonically, it was what bled through the “wall” that made the stuff translate. The syrupy lyricism of The Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” (that’s about as deep as it goes) is offset by a delicate(ly loud) orchestration responding to the fecklessness. The cinematic string swoons in “Then He Kissed Me” live up to the sentiment and the sentimental melody. The unexpected guitar chord in the chorus of “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” still sounds magical. Even Spector’s own “To Know Him Is to Love Him” (with The Teddy Bears) snaps to a surprisingly effective bridge. It sounds creepily dramatic, giving the feeling of rising waves before slipping back to saccharine. In this sense, it’s ironically the music’s dated-ness — knowing when and how it came about — that helps the songs go down together. Though none of them are particularly topical (“Black Pearl” gets closest), they’re all pushed forward by the feeling that something special was coming.

Spector’s legacy as the premier “symphonic pop” master is one of high standing, and rightfully so. The guy did more to legitimize young-love-through-grand-pop-confectionery than any producer. But the flavor of his sound is one that wears off on re-inspection — more state than stately. One might even stretch themselves and argue that Spector’s “wall of sound” belatedly triggered the more-echo-means-more-atmosphere philosophy that pervades the music biz of 2011. For all its importance and its remaining pleasures, a wall of sound is still a wall, meaning that it’s exclusionary by definition. It’s like a great review I once read of the Pink Floyd album: “You just don’t get how deep The Wall is. It’s like there’s this wall around him, and the wall symbolizes a wall”.

RATING 7 / 10
Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists
Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists