Album Review #37: A Christmas Gift for You by Phil Spector (1963)

A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector

Nothing quite like having to review a Christmas album in April, is there?

The genre of holiday-specific music has such a stigma surrounding it. I’m not saying I don’t completely understand it. It’s just that through all of the ad-nauseum overplaying of the same three to four standards for almost three whole months every year, it can be hard to remember that, when taken at face value, they’re not at all bad songs. The tragedy of Christmas music is, sadly, that for most people, these songs have been overplayed to the point that hearing a couple notes out of their melody is enough to trigger flashbacks. So in spite of all this, my mission for this review is to give these holiday staples a fair, unbiased assessment, and judge them without any of the knee-jerk reactions they tend to get three-quarters of each year. You ready? Alright, let’s do this.

“White Christmas.” This is a great start to the album, performed by Darlene Love. Her voice is beautiful, and the pulsating, rhythmic instrumentation is excellent. The lyrics aren’t really that relatable for me personally, having to suffer through the hell that is the Midwestern Winter every year, but I can see where they’re coming from. Grass is always greener on the other side, after all. “Frosty the Snowman.” Alright, this one can spark revulsion in a lot of people, and I will admit I personally find it to be one of the album’s weaker tracks, but at least it’s somewhat catchy. It’s not my least favorite holiday standard, but it’s down there. At least The Ronettes’ rendition has personality. “The Bells of St. Mary,” performed by Bob B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans, isn’t that bad, with a pretty impressive vocal performance from Mr. Soxx himself, and an almost angelic chorus backing him. Next up is “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,”  performed by The Crystals. I know it’s a pretty tired joke at this point, but I still can’t help but find the lyrics to be somewhat disturbing. Seriously, the lyrics make Mr. Claus out to be some sort of all-seeing Orwellian dictator, and the cheery melodies only somehow make it even more mildly unsettling. Oh well, at least The Crystals have great harmony. After that comes “Sleigh Ride.” I’ll admit, I have a bit of a soft spot for this one. The main melody is just damn catchy, and I can’t deny that this is one Christmas song I don’t mind hearing outside of the typical holiday season. Last on Side A is “Marshmallow World,” which is probably my favorite track off of the album. Performed once again by Darlene Love, it’s just stupidly catchy, with a pretty great saxophone solo to boot. Maybe it’s just because I’ve heard it before the least out of all of them, but this one just strikes me as the album’s highest point.

Phil Spector, eltrochilero(dot)com

Phil Spector looking cool in his producer’s booth. Image source: eltrochilero.com

Side B starts off strong with my second favorite track off the album, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” Sung by The Ronettes, it’s got a really interesting melody, with a great harmony from the instruments and backup singers. After that’s The Crystals’ rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which, I’m sad to say, isn’t really anything special. I don’t know why, maybe it’s just how many times I’ve heard it before, but it just doesn’t seem to do that much to set it apart from the slew of other versions by countless other artists. It isn’t bad, not at all, but it just doesn’t stand out to me as much as the songs it’s surrounded by. “Winter Wonderland,” performed once again by Darlene Love, is excellent, with a superb chorus and great plucked strings. Strangely, it seems to have a subtly more lo-fi aesthetic to it compared to surrounding tracks. I’m not sure if it’s done intentionally on Spector’s part, but either way it makes it sound even better. “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” is up next, and The Crystals give their usual great choir-of-singers treatment to it, accompanied by some great percussion, as well as a trumpet interlude. Darlene Love has one last hurrah with “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” with probably her best vocal performance of the album, backed by some great instrumental harmony to boot. The saxophones on this one are awesome, not to mention the piano part. Finally, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans reappear for the final time for “Here Comes Santa Claus.” His vocals are pretty good, and the backup singers are alright, but overall, this one just doesn’t stand out as much as the others. The track that precedes it kind of overshadows it, and sadly, I would say that this one is one of the record’s more forgettable tracks. The album is closed off by a nice little spoken word thank-you note delivered by Spector himself, backed by an instrumental “Silent Night.” He seems really proud of everyone involved, and he’s really, really happy you bought his album this Christmas season.

Probably the most significant aspect of this album is its production style. Dubbed the “Wall of Sound,” it was Spector’s trademark. It involved mastering the record so that it sounded like every instrument came together as one, heavy sound, and it was virtually unheard-of at the time. I personally think it sounds incredible, and although the sound can be somewhat polarizing for some, you can’t deny the influence it had on the world of music. Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys was heavily impacted by this style, even naming A Christmas Gift for You as his favorite album of all time. The style can even be heard in genres and bands decades in the future, with shoegaze bands such as My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, many metal bands, and pretty much the entirety of popular music to at least a small extent. Phil Spector’s musical vision changed the whole of music, and no matter what you think of his work, you can’t deny his massive importance.

So, yeah. Now for the elephant in the room. Yep, it’s no secret that Phil wasn’t exactly the most stable person in the production buisness. In fact, he threatened both The Ramones and Leonard Cohen at gunpoint during the production of their respective albums, and working with him was almost never a pleasant experience for anyone involved. This all culminated in 2009, when he was charged with the second-degree murder of Lana Clarkson on his estate. He is currently serving his sentance of 19-years-to-life in prison. So it comes as no surprise that, for many people, enjoying his life’s work can be a little difficult. I generally do a pretty good job of separating the art from the artist, but I have to admit that in this case, even just hearing him speak is a little bit on the uncomfortable side. If you can’t separate the music from the person, that’s totally understandable. I understand that this album is a pretty bad double-whammy of a hard-sell, being an album of Christmas music produced by a convicted murderer. But if you can somehow see past all that, you’ll find a pretty revolutionary catchy pop album. I just don’t blame you at all for steering clear.

Favorite Tracks: “Marshmallow Land,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” “Sleigh Ride,” “Winter Wonderland”

Next Up: Live at the Harlem Square Club by Sam Cooke (1963)

Album Review #35: With The Beatles by The Beatles (1963)

With the Beatles, The Beatles

This album is hard for me to review. Not because of how ludicrously important it is to music as a whole, (I had no problem reviewing Elvis Presley or Kind of Blue, after all) but simply because of how close and personal it is to me. This right here is, like, all I would listen to as a kid, and as such almost every track holds a deep-rooted nostalgia factor to me. I’ll try to review this record as objectively as I can, but in this instance that will be pretty much borderline impossible. Anyways, as the first of seven Beatles albums included in the book, (but not the first Beatles album, as Please Please Me sadly did not make the cut) this album has a lot of hype to live up to. Thankfully, I would say that it absolutely does.

First off, simply for clarity, every Beatles album I will be reviewing will be the original U.K. release, and not the butchered and gutted North American versions released by Capitol. In addition, going forward, if there are two separate versions of a specific album, I will be reviewing the version with more content. If the two versions both contain tracks unique to each other, I’ll be reviewing a sort of “composite” version containing all tracks, such as, for example, Aftermath by The Rolling Stones or Are You Experienced? by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Alright, back on topic. This album, or at least the crappy Capitol version Meet the Beatles, was their big breakthrough in America, and hearing the plethora of grade-A pop songs on this record, it isn’t difficult to see why. Right from the get-go, “It Won’t Be Long” explodes with superb guitar hooks and “yeah” chanting, and the follow-up, “All I’ve Got to Do” sports some fantastic vocal harmonies. “All My Loving” is just a hypnotic whirlwind of guitar strumming and harmonized lyrics, and to be perfectly honest, every single track on this album has something going for it. I think my personal favorite would have to be “Till There Was You,” which is really just beautiful. It serves as a nice break from the energetic rock and roll populating the rest of the record.

The Beatles 1963, fanpopdotcom.jpg

The Beatles, c. 1963.

From left to right: John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr.

Image Source: fanpop.com

While this is certainly the better album by a longshot, I think its predecessor Please Please Me deserves a mention as well. It’s looser, less refined, and generally just less developed as With The Beatles, but its collection of tracks is still quite strong; the opener, “I Saw Her Standing There,” is as good as anything on its follow-up, “Love Me Do” is fully deserving of its status as first Beatles hit, and of course their cover of “Twist and Shout” is simply essential. With The Beatles is still the superior album, however. It just seems to know what it’s doing so much more, and each and every melody, harmony, hook and bridge just feels more well-thought-out. Please Please Me is more of a picture of the learning artist than the artist at its peak, and With The Beatles a portrait of the artist that has improved upon itself and truly refined their craft.

In summary, With The Beatles is one of the best showcases of their pure, basic pop-making expertise of their discography. Each song is short and to-the-point, and every hook and melody is memorable and well-written. Later albums would see them drop their mop-top personas and dive head-first into innovation and experimentalism, but if you’re looking for a good picture of their music-making skill in its most basic form, there’s no better place to start than here.

Favorite Tracks: “Till There Was You,” “All I’ve Got to Do,” “It Won’t Be Long,” “All My Loving”

Next Up: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan by Bob Dylan (1963)

Album Review #27: A Date With The Everly Brothers by The Everly Brothers (1960)

a-date-with-the-everly-brothers

Think about this for a second: without these guys, there’d be no Beatles or Beach Boys as we know them. Would anyone want to live in a world like that? I don’t think so. They were trailblazers in the world of pop-oriented rock and roll, and their influence on future musicians for decades to come simply cannot be measured. All future influence and importance aside, this is a damn strong pop-rock album in its own right. Short and sweet, it crams as many insanely catchy lyrics, choruses and melodies as is possible to fit inside its 27-minute runtime. It’s funny how albums so short can have such huge and lasting impact: Fats Domino, The Crickets and Little Richard, just to name a few, and now we have the Everly Brothers to join those prestigious ranks.

Blending elements of Elvis-style rock and roll with surf rock and Louvin Brothers-esque close vocal harmonies, this record creates a distinctive blend of pop-rock that’s extremely receptive to 60’s prom setlists and extensive radio play alike. Some may use those descriptors as an insult, but I think it really just proves how well the Everly Brothers know their craft. Don and Phil know exactly what to do to hammer a catchy melody or hook into your brain after just a single listen, and their knowledge of the art of pop is immediately evident. Commercially viable does not mean bad, and this album is only one of countless examples.

everly-brothers-yourtoojerrydotblogspotdotcom

Image Source: yourtoojerry.blogspot.com

Despite being a relatively short album compared to typical album runtimes, it actually works in a surprising amount of musical diversity. There’s Surf Rock in tracks like “Made to Love” and one of my personal favorites, “Sigh, Cry, Almost Die.” There’s slow ballads, like “That’s Just Too Much,” “Always It’s You” and one of their most well-known hits, “Love Hurts.” There’s even a hearty helping of blues rock, showcased at its best in “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” with some excellent piano and rhythm guitar. And with all of these suberb tracks, the album isn’t even done yet: there’s still songs like “Lucille,” “Donna Donna,” and of course, “Cathy’s Clown.”

This is an album that simply doesn’t waste a track. Every single one of this album’s 27 minutes is jam-packed with pop-rock perfection, and its short length means that you finish the album wanting more. Don’t be put off by their teenage-heart-throb image or their boy-band aesthetic, because they really do know how to make a good song.

Favorite Tracks: “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” “Sigh, Cry, Almost Die,” “Lucille,” “Cathy’s Clown”

Next Up:  Back at the Chicken Shack by Jimmy Smith (1960)

Album Review #19: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook by Ella Fitzgerald (1959)

gershwin-songbook-ella-fitzgerald

Whew. I’ve gone through the book a few times, and I am almost certain that this album, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook, is the single longest album in the entire book. At just over three hours in length, it’s an absolute monster of a record (or rather, five records). It’s packed to the absolute bursting point with catchy pop tunes and Gershwin’s legendary instrumentation (arranged by Nelson Riddle), and it is simply an all-you-can-eat buffet for the ears.

It starts off with about 13 minutes of instrumentals, entitled “Ambulatory Suite” and “The Preludes.” Gershwin’s composing and Riddle’s conducting really get a chance to shine here, with almost every second just emanating Americana. Ella’s singing comes in with “Sam and Delilah,” and her delivery is just great. She sings each line with personality and attitude, and just seems to perfectly encapsulate the era with style and swing.

ella-fitzgerald-historydotcom

Image Source: history.com

Normally I like to make a short list of my favorite tracks from each album. Well, that won’t be easy this time: there are 57 tracks here, and they’re all great. So a few songs that I enjoyed, pretty much arbitrarily chosen, are “The Real American Folk Song,” “Just Another Rhumba,” “By Strauss,” “Stiff Upper Lip,” “Love is Sweeping the Country,” and “Slap That Bass.” I honestly don’t think there’s a single track in this massive album that I didn’t enjoy to some extent. I’ve listened to the whole thing start to finish a couple times now, and each time is just as enjoyable as the first listen. I guess if there’s one negative criticism I have regarding this one, it’s that it is just too overstuffed. I’m not complaining, but I can definitely imagine it being tough to get through for other listeners.

I don’t expect any of you to listen to all three hours of this thing. Even I find it to be best enjoyed when split up into smaller parts. But for those with the time and patience, Gershwin Songbook is a worthwhile listen, and a highly enjoyable one at that. Ella Fitzgerald is ridiculously talented, and this album showcases possibly the highlight of her catalog. So, give it a listen! You might just enjoy it.

Favorite Tracks: “The Real American Folk Song,” “Just Another Rhumba,” “By Strauss,” “Stiff Upper Lip,” “Love is Sweeping the Country,” “Slap That Bass.”

Next Up: The Genius of Ray Charles by Ray Charles (1959)

Album Review #16: Lady in Satin by Billie Holiday (1958)

lady-in-satin-billie-holiday

Lady in Satin is truly a haunting record. One of the most raw, emotional and deeply personal musical recordings of all time, it still manages to leave listeners speechless over a half-century later. It was sadly the final album Billie Holiday would release during her lifetime, as she would die of liver cirrhosis brought on by alcoholism, just a year and a half later at the age of 44. Her voice is damaged and weak in this album,  and while you would think that such a thing would detract from the music, in reality it’s exactly the opposite. She gives one of the most profound and emotional vocal performances I have ever heard in this record, singing every line with the entirety of her heart and soul. This album is truly unforgettable.

I can’t help but make comparisons to a previous album on this list, In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra, released 1955. They are incredibly similar in instrumentation, mood and lyrical content, and while I prefer Sinatra’s album (it’s still #1 on my album rankings after 16 albums!), this album is still a masterpiece in its own right. They share three of the same songs, (namely, covers of “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” “Glad to Be Unhappy,” and “I’ll Be Around”) but despite the many similarities, they remain wildly different albums. Sinatra’s voice is unwavering and flawless, and Holiday’s voice is tattered and broken. Both singing styles compliment the music greatly, but in much different ways. Personally, I prefer Holiday’s delivery, as I find it conveys a whole world of emotion that Sinatra’s only hints at in comparison. Ray Ellis, the mastermind behind Lady in Satin’s brilliant instrumentation, was originally unhappy with her damaged-sounding vocals, but listening to the master tapes later in production, he heard it in a whole new light. He noted that her delivery and performance didn’t shine in opposition to her voice, but rather the two enhanced each other. I completely agree; she really knew how to sing a lyric, and her decades of musical experience shined through and brought this album from average to unforgettable.

billie-holiday

Photo of Billie Holiday, source: MTV.com

My personal favorite of the album’s eleven tracks is “For Heaven’s Sake.” It’s got the usual great vocal delivery, but there’s just so much nuance and subtlety in the instrumentation, such as the brilliantly understated piano in the opening. I almost can’t even put my finger on just what makes this track so good. One of my favorite parts is this high-register background voice that shows up throughout the record (courtesy of Elise Bretton and Miriam Workman). It sounds almost theremin-like, and grants each track an otherworldly, ethereal vibe that just seems to speak to me on a deep, indescribable level. Holiday’s vocals and Ellis’ orchestra work together absolutely flawlessly, and together they create a borderline perfect atmosphere of both gloom and hope. This is a theme carried throughout the album; almost every track deals in doomed love and broken relationships, ruminating on the nature of love in the face of uncertainty and opposition. Some other highlights include her take on the staple “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” as well as the ultra-downer “You’ve Changed.” The album sure gives you a lot to think about, and is a highly emotional listening experience from start to finish.

So in conclusion, Lady in Satin is a masterpiece, plain-and-simple. Billie Holiday delivers one of the best vocal performances I’ve ever heard on this album, and Ray Ellis’ instrumentation is worth the listen on its own. It’s an album I would recommend to any music lover, and I don’t think I’ll be forgetting about this one any time soon.

Favorite Tracks: “For Heaven’s Sake,” “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” “You’ve Changed”

Next Up: Jack Takes the Floor by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (1958)

Album Review #7: Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! by Frank Sinatra (1956)

Songs For Swingin' Lovers! cover

The second Sinatra album on the list so far, Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! is much different from it’s predecessor, In the Wee Small Hours. It’s much more upbeat and cheerful, in contrast with his previous record, which showed a much more gloomy and introspective atmosphere. While I still prefer the former album, this one’s still an outstanding album in it’s own right.

As with the preceding record, the instrumentals are by far the album’s strongest point. However, the album puts less of an emphasis on Disney-score-like strings and more on a jazzy, somewhat uptempo style. Lyrically, it’s also much less of a downer. Instead of focusing on loneliness and bitter break-ups, Sinatra sings about feelings of love and joy. It still has quite a few moments of emotion, however, with particular note going to “We’ll Be Together Again.” It’s kind of difficult to pick stand-out tracks on this album, seeing as they’re all great. Sinatra may not have written his own lyrics, but he still found a way to inject each of his performances with huge amounts of passion. I’m not usually one to exaggerate, but he might just have been the greatest Pop artist of the decade.

Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! is quite simply an incredible record. The singing is great, the instrumentation is superb, and it’s just a great listen start-to-finish. I couldn’t recommend this one more.

Next Up: The “Chirping” Crickets by Buddy Holly and the Crickets (1957)

Album Review #2: In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra (1955)

In the Wee Small Hours Sinatra Cover

I was pleasantly surprised by this album. As the oldest album on the list, it holds up incredibly well. The writing, instrumentals and vocals are all borderline perfect. It’s also a very sad and melancholy record, being mostly inspired by a particularly nasty breakup with his wife Ava Gardner.

The music itself is without a doubt my favorite part of this album. The strings, horns, and and occasional bells all work together to create a truly sublime score that sounds straight out of the most well-orchestrated classic Disney film you can imagine. Listening to this album is like having silk, milk and honey injected directly into your eardrums. …Actually, that sounds horrifying. Never mind, bad example.

This was a difficult and emotional album for Sinatra to make, and it shows. The lyrics are sad, the vocals are soulful and the album as a whole just gives off an incredible sorrowful vibe. Most of the songs are about loneliness, isolation and often unrequited love, which makes sense, as the album was mainly inspired by his recent separation with his wife, Ava. The emotions in this album are real and strong, and it’s easy to tell.

So overall, this was a very good album. The combination of absolutely incredible instrumentation, lyrics and vocal performances make this a truly unforgettable album A true masterpiece that you should absolutely listen to.

Next Up: Tragic Songs of Life by the Louvin Brothers (1956)