Music

Various Artists: The Essential Phil Spector

2011's Spector re-packaging continues with 35 songs of varying profundity, most of which will turn 50 in the next couple of years if they haven't already. Whatever. To the kids, it'll all sound like West Side Story anyway.


Various Artists

The Essential Phil Spector

Label: Sony/Legacy
US release date: 2011-10-24
UK release date: 2011-10-24
Amazon
iTunes

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".

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.