Thursday, November 17, 2011

Review: ‘Phil Spector Presents the Philles Album Collection’

Phil Spector built a pop empire on the otherworldly singles he produced in the early ‘60s. His reputation at 33 1/3 rpms was less solid. The long player didn’t become a vital Rock & Roll conveyance until the British Invasion that ended Spector’s reign. So he didn’t always put a great deal of thought into the way his albums were presented. When he finally resolved to make a masterful L.P., he released it the same day JFK was assassinated. A mourning public didn’t feel much like jingling all the way, and A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records flopped. Justly, that album has gone on to achieve classic status with its numerous reissues over the decades. Philles Records’ other L.P.s were never afforded that same boost until now.

Phil Spector Presents the Philles Album Collection collects all six non-holiday albums released on Spector’s label on CD for the very first time. This set is fascinating both for its pleasant surprises and its emphasis on just how cavalier Spector was about everything but his single A-sides. There is a large and disappointing amount of overlap between these discs. The Crystals’ first two records, Twist Uptown and He’s a Rebel, are nearly identical. More of the group’s songs are repeated on The Crystals Sing the Greatest Hits Vol. 1. One third of the tracks on that particular L.P. are tossed-off covers of creaky standards, such as “The Wah Watusi” and “The Twist”. And The Crystals aren’t even the artists on those tracks! The Ronettes are!


Yet Spector’s offhand approach to making albums could also be genuinely interesting. Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans’ Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah finds him experimenting with greater abandon than he usually dared on his hits. His use of cagey distortion, odd bits of discordance (the guttural, out-of-tune bass on “Baby, I Love You”), and tightly controlled tempos and dynamics make an already eccentric selection of songs—“The White Cliffs of Dover”, “This Land Is Your Land”, the title track, which was certainly Spector’s oddest hit— even odder. Even the Disney-esque cartoon on the front cover is kind of unusual. Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah also provides the box set’s most concentrated dose of Darlene Love, whose magnificent solo material is sadly underrepresented here.

Even weirder is Phil’s Flipsides, a bonus compilation of the two-minute instrumental improvisations Spector’s Wall of Sound Orchestra recorded to fill the B-sides of his hit singles and discourage DJs from playing the wrong sides. By design this isn’t the producer’s most essential music, but the combination of wacky Rock & Roll instrumentals and pretty convincing straight jazz is refreshing. Half this disc would sound smashing on a John Waters soundtrack. The other half is great cocktail party mood music. The goofy titles further reveal how little Spector cared about his non-A-sides: “Flip and Nitty”, “Chubby Danny D.”, “Dr. Kaplan’s Office” (named for Spector’s psychiatrist, who was apparently pretty shitty at his job).

Phil Spector Presents the Philles Album Collection will be most appealing to Spector completists, but there is a lot of amazing music here. Granted, those two debut Crystals records are pretty flimsy. The best of their tracks are collected on Sings the Greatest Hits Vol. 1 and the various-artists compilation Philles Records Presents Today’s Hits, which also features a handful of Darlene Love solo sides, including the transcendent “Wait Til’ My Bobby Gets Home”, and The Alley Cats’ fun novelty “Puddin’ N’ Tain”. Best of all is Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica, Spector’s first truly great album despite its failure to generate classic status. All of the group’s prime-era hits (“Be My Baby”, “Walking in the Rain”, “Baby, I Love You”, “I Wonder”—Yow!), classic oddities (“You Baby”, “So Young”), and some unexpected surprises (a raucous phony live version of Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say”) converge in a spectacular line up. Along with The Beach Boys, who it so inspired, this is the freshest pop that came out of America during the first year of the British Invasion.

Get Phil Spector Presents the Philles Album Collection at Amazon.com here.
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