Various Artists - A Christmas Gift For You - Review
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critics' view

It truly is a shame that the life of Phil Spector has been reduced to a murder trial. There’s no reason to feel sorry for him. He brought his downfall on himself with an array of maniacal, gun-waving antics that were spread across several decades. Still, one hopes his artistic pursuits won’t be tarnished forever by his heinous misdeeds and that, in time, his musical legacy will regain all of the luster it has lost.

In the recording studio, at least, Spector was a genius. A big believer in the power of music, Spector took the viewpoint that bigger was always better. Part-composer, part-conductor, he stacked sounds on top of each other to create a giant, thunderous chorus of instruments. On the efforts he produced, an overwhelming orchestra of bells, chimes, pianos, guitars, strings, and horns converged to support his merry melodies; slathered in echoes, his symphonic songs hit like a sonic boom. Without Spector’s vision, albums from The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run might never have been brought to fruition.

During the summer of 1963, fresh from the success of The Ronettes’ Be My Baby, Spector rounded up his roster of artists — which, in addition to The Ronettes, also included Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, The Crystals, and Darlene Love — and he took them to Los Angeles to begin working on A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. Supported by the legendary collective of session men known as The Wrecking Crew, Spector applied his newly minted, Wall-of-Sound style to a series of holiday classics. Instead of utilizing the traditional arrangements, Spector and Jack Nitzsche boldly re-imagined the songs in ways that made them appeal to a younger generation that had been weaned on rock ’n‘ roll.

Forty-six years later, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector remains one of the finest specimens within the vast and often tepid genre of Christmas albums. Its music is awash in innocence, and its songs burst with joy. At the same time, though, the white-hot heat and the raw tension of the 1960s sexual revolution lurk inside its shimmering girl-group harmonies. The Crystals gave Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town a grand, majestic flair, while The Ronettes’ playfully strolled through Sleigh Ride. Elsewhere, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans captured the giddiness of Here Comes Santa Claus, and Darlene Love turned Irving Berlin’s White Christmas upside-down.

As good as the familiar fare was, however, Spector had one other trick hidden up his sleeve. With the help of a pair of songwriters from the Brill Building scene, he sculpted the lone original tune that appears on A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. Without a doubt, Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) is the set’s best track. Over the years, David Letterman has almost singlehandedly managed to keep the song at the forefront of popular culture by making Love’s performances on his television program an integral part of his holiday tradition.

Although it originally was conceived as a plea to a wayward lover, Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) has since gleaned new meaning from the ever-changing, yet frustratingly stagnant evening news. It now stands as a cry for peace as well as a memorial of sorts to the soldiers who have served overseas — be it in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan — during the Yuletide season. Love’s commanding, gospel-imbued vocals exude anguish, and they ultimately elevate Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) to the point where it arguably is the most moving, magnificent, and utterly heart-wrenching holiday composition ever to be written or recorded. It is the icing on the cake. A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector is an album that paradoxically is both stuck in the past and most assuredly timeless.

John Metzger
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The Music Box was a daily magazine dedicated to exploring the world of music, first published in June 1994, and first on the web in June 1997. Last new article in 2011. external-link.png

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