Due to work obligations I’ve had less time to devote on blogging than I had hoped for. Oh well, I’m back again and hope to be able to post a bit more during the coming months.
And so ‘tis the season once again for dusting off the old Phil Spector Christmas album and let the parade of the Philles roster regale you with holiday cheer. As much as I cherish that iconic album, old-time Cue Castanets readers will be well aware that I also have a soft spot for more recent Christmas music that tries to emulate the sound of Spector’s 1963 Christmas opus.
Every November and December seem to bring new releases that point back to the sound of the most legendary of all Christmas albums and it’s always fun to see how musicians of today go about recreating the Gold Star magic. Here are a few recent discoveries for you from the last couple of years.
If you happen to come across some new releases that fit the ‘let’s-do-a-Spector-christmas-song’ category, please let me know.
Sporting none other than the queens of the beehive on the cover, here’s the previously unreleased ‘Christmas is a Time for Giving’ by late 90s garage and punk band the Prissteens. A pretty rough recording but the song has a tasty rumble and a catchy melody that sounds like the long lost cousin of ‘Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)’ Very nice but would have worked better with a more distinctive singer. Darlene or Ronnie could have nailed this one! You can stream the song and purchase it off the Girlsville bandcamp page: https://girlsville.bandcamp.com/track/christmas-is-a-time-for-giving
Not content to simply mine the Spector Christmas sound, Ontario-based duo Scarlett & Disher even pose emerging from Christmas gifts. Hmmm, where have I seen that before? The duo’s 5-track Christmas EP tries its best to live up to the high standards of what Spector and the wrecking crew did during the summer of ’63. The results are pleasant if somewhat synthetic in sound – I miss the tasty reverb of Gold Star but kudos for tipping the hat to the Wall of Sound. You really only need to check out the stand-out tracks ‘Angels We Have Heard on High’ and ‘Wake Up! It’s Christmas.’ https://scarlettanddisher.bandcamp.com/album/that-christmas-feeling
Then there’s this 2015 holiday release from US singer Felice LaZae which surely reminds me of a specific song whose title escapes me. Nothing original here so what ‘makes’ this release is definitely Felice’s soulful, raspy vocal. I wish she’d had poured on a bit more instrumentation in order to push this track even more towards the sacred halls of the Wall of Sound. Surely, she could have discarded that cheesy keyboard for a bombastic string section, couldn’t she?
Finally, a new release by LA-based duo Best Coast who has previously payed homage to local stallwarts like the Beach Boys and Spector in their music. ‘Christmas and Everyday’ was recorded as a standalone for some online kid special. Like with Scarlett & Disher, this is a take on the Wall of Sound that’s more sharp on the ears and synthetic in sound than the organic and deliciously muddy echo that graced Spector’s work, but if you can see past that fact, this is a pretty cool track. https://soundcloud.com/amazon-music/best-coast-christmas-and-everyday
It’s been a while since I’ve featured some of the modern Spector soundalikes I have a habit of tracking down just for the fun of it. There are literally thousands of newly produced songs out there leaning heavily towards a Wall of Sound-type approach, ripe for picking for any obsessed Spector fan.
Christmas-time is often especially rewarding because of the fact that Spector’s iconic ‘A Christmas Gift for You’ album has virtually brainwashed everyone into thinking that the Wall of Sound is the sound of Christmas; a warm, enveloping and nostalgic sound that artists today often go for when recording Christmas music, probably even without giving it much thought. Glockenspiels, strumming guitars, church bells and a ‘Be my Baby’ beat. Why, that’s just what Christmas sounds like, isn’t it?
So today, this latest installment of the Modern Spector Soundalikes feature will present a festive doublesider in the form of two recent Christmas releases that both make use of some of the hallmarks of the Spector yuletide sound. I don’t know much about the artists other than that the duo Ette hail from Scotland while Mr Little Jeans is one-girl project from Norway. No matter, these two songs should appeal to everyone checking in from time to time.
Both productions are a little on the crude side – no sweeping Nitszchean strings here or a thousand acoustic guitars strumming in unison in a sea of echo. But both singles are still very, very enjoyable with sweet female vocals and a very classic song structure that make the songs seem familiar and inviting even on first listen. Surely, these songs wouldn’t have been out of place on an imaginary Philles Christmas single by the Ronettes, the Crystals or Darlene Love.
Check them out. I dig the huskiness and Scottish accent of the Ette singer and really, really love the dreamy chorus on Mr Little Jeans’ ‘Dear Santa’. Great stuff! Hope you’ll enjoy these two releases as much as I do.
Last night marked Darlene Love’s 28th consecutive and final performance of ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ on the David Letterman Show, due to Letterman’s retirement next year.
Based in Europe, as I am, I had to wait until this morning before I could catch the performance via Youtube. As always, Darlene turns in a powerhouse vocal and the Paul Shaffer-led backing is as majestic and elaborate as we’ve come to expect. Enjoy!
A fitting end to what has become a cherished Holiday tradition for all of us? Seeing that Stephen Colbert takes over the Late Show after Letterman, he’d be wise to persuade Darlene and Paul to continue the tradition each December. Let’s keep our fingers crossed!
Incidentally, I just noticed this cool clip of Paul & co. having fun with ‘You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling’ on the Late Show youtube channel. Awesome!
Really, Paul Shaffer should take this concept on the road or at least just make a big concert in New York bringing together his band with Darlene and other former Philles artists. He could call it the ‘Wall of Sound Revue’ or something like that.
Can you imagine that? A big show at Radio City Music Hall or Carnegie Hall? Paul Shaffer and band playing all our beloved Philles classics with Darlene Love, Ronnie Spector, LaLa Brooks, Bill Medley, Tina Turner etc joining on stage? And you could have relevant guest spots like Bruce Springsteen and Steven van Zandt. That show would be the stuff of legends! Oh well, we can dream, can’t we?
There’s been a lot of press about this final performance. Here’s a nice write-up from the New York Times to end this blog post with:
Come Monday, December the 1st, you’ll be spinnin’ Phil Spector’s ‘Christmas Gift for You’ longplayer 24/7,…. That is, if you haven’t done so already through 2014? It’s that good an album.
Yes, Phil Spector really outdid himself when he loomed large over sweating Wrecking Crew members in Gold Star studios during long, hot summer nights in 1963. End result? The perfect Christmas record. It will probably never be outdone when it comes to bringing holiday cheer.
For someone as notoriously known for padding out albums with quickly recorded filler, Spector uncharacteristically kept his focus while working up ‘A Christmas Gift for You.’ All the songs are great and sure enough; the one original song on there, Darlene Love’s ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’, has rightly so become one of the ultimate holiday anthems.
Even though the album didn’t see much success upon its original release, no doubt affected by the JFK assasination shortly after it hit the streets, it has since grown in stature. Nowadays, it wouldn’t be wrong to call it the ‘Pet Sounds’ of Christmas music. Year after year it tops the lists of Christmas albums when music critics, blogs or websites offer their opinion of the greatest Christmas music of all time.
Spector’s Wall of Sound and the Christmas spirit definitely was a match made in heaven. A lot of the elements that made his sound work fit the yuletide feeling to a T. We’re talking sleigh bells, sweeping string arrangements and a warm, muddled sound. It’s no wonder that time has proven Spector’s album to be the perfect soundtrack for huddling up in front of the fire while it’s snowing outside. You could say then that the Wall of Sound has become synonymous with Christmas because of the album. And not surprisingly, December is the time of year where you’ll have the best chance of discovering new Spector-influenced music if you check out each year’s flood of new Christmas releases.
To prove my point I’ve decided to combine my love for modern Spector soundalikes and Christmas music in this post. The goal is to compile my personal tribute to ‘A Christmas Gift for You’ using songs from modern artists who clearly show how Spector’s ghost continues to hover over a lot of today’s Christmas music.
The rules are simple. All songs must be from the new millennium. All songs should be original as opposed to Spector’s album, just to keep it a bit more interesting for you, the reader. And it almost goes without saying that I must come up with 13 tracks, – the same amount as on Spector’s album. I’ve managed to find youtube clips for all songs which I’ll embed here for your listening pleasure. So bear with me & the blog if this post takes some time to upload in your browser.
Ready for some Christmas Wall of Sound? Here we go!
1. The Hives & Cyndi Lauper – A Christmas Duel (2008)
This single from 2008 is the perfect opener. It’s a stunning team-up between Swedish retro-rockers the Hives and US veteran Cyndi Lauper. Cyndi really gives Ronnie Spector a run for her money, no doubt drawing on her experience of singing back-up for Ronnie a long time ago.
2. Leona Lewis – Mr. Right (2013)
Here’s a nifty song I discovered last year. It’s from this British singer’s Christmas album and probably the most blatant ‘All I Want for Christmas’ rip-off you’re ever going to hear. Mariah Carey should sue any day now. But since I’ve, unbelievably so, become tired of listening to Mariah’s song, this’ll do nicely to fill the gap.
3. Attic Lights – Why Should Christmas be so Hard? (2012)
Again a more recent song by Scottish indie-pop band Attic Lights. These guys are great and have proven to be perfectly adept at the Spector sound before, – check their ‘Bring You Down’ single for evidence. This is like a cross between Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and Brian Wilson’s mid 60s work. High praise indeed but this fantastic song deserves it.
4. Metro Jets – Jingle Jangle Christmas (2006)
Here’s the second Swedish entry. This was actually a theme song made for a local TV show which is all the more remarkable as it’s one of the best and most enjoyable Wall of Sound pastiches I’ve heard. Listen to that thumping beat and the catchy melody. Imagine how this could have sounded with Darlene Love behind the mic!
5. The Raveonettes – The Christmas Song (2003)
Danish duo the Raveonettes have proven time and again that they’re as big fans of the Wall of Sound as they come. Why, they’ve even had the pleasure of duetting with Ronnie Spector on their fabulous ‘Ode to LA’ single. This song isn’t as loud and busy as some of my other choices but I think it has a feel that makes it obvious for inclusion. Those tinkling sleighbells, that reverby guitar… With a bit more echo on the drums and a Jack Nitzsche string arrangement, you’d have a delicious slice of moody Wall of Sound…
6. Lisa Mychols – Listen to the Bells Ring (2002)
Great use of castanets and a Hal Blaine-sounding drum beat on this classic track from US singer Lisa Mychols. The arrangement is majestic with perfect backing by the Wondermints who have made up the backbone of Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s band for years.
7. The Kik – A Christmas Song for You (2011)
The Dutch also know how to rock it out Spector-style! Another Spector fan alerted me to this great track in 2011 and I was instantly won over by their jet-propelled take on the Wall of Sound. Sleighbells galore, rapidfire piano runs and a melody that’s catchy as hell! There’s even a Steve Douglas wannabe honking away on the solo!
8. Parker Lewis – X-Mas Carol NYC (2007)
We’re off to Sweden again for this melancholic ballad. It’s a toned down approach for sure compared to the other songs. I’ve had a soft spot for this one ever since discovering it. The use of glockenspiel, sleighbells and jangling guitars is very touching and perfectly complements the sad lyrics and soft ‘sha-dam-dam’ backing vocals.
9. The Hilarettes – Santa Claus is Here! (2009)
We’re back to more familiar territory with this by-the-numbers Spector tribute. This one is a no-brainer for inclusion with its percussive sax and grand sweeping string arrangement. I would have preferred a singer with a stronger, more distinctive voice but you can’t have it all, I guess.
10. Darlene Love – Christmas Time for the Jews (2005, SNL sketch)
If you’re going to make a convincing Wall of Sound tribute the dream scenario would be getting Darlene Love to belt out your song. That’s what happened in 2005 when comedy show Saturday Night Live decided to do a sketch about the holiday season and Jewish people. What better way to address the topic than with a perfect Spector sound clone? My jaw hit the floor when I first heard this production. It’s note-perfect Wall of Sound and wouldn’t have been out of place on the original ‘A Christmas Gift for You’ album,…. with revised lyrics of course. Sadly, this one has never come out as a conventional track. Someone somewhere should really re-record this great song with new lyrics!
11. Glasvegas – Please Come Back Home (2008)
Not only did Scottish band Glasvegas pay their debt to Spector’s sound with a few songs off their cool debut album in 2008; they even followed in his footsteps that same year by releasing a great Christmas mini-album. Lead singer and main songwriter James Allen has a voice to die for and really knows how to milk a song for all it’s worth. The obligatory sleigh bells and a maelstrom of churning guitars add to the intensity.
12. The School – Kiss You in the Snow (2009)
I’ve written about the criminally overlooked Welsh band the School before. If they indeed went to school in Spectorland, they got straight As! And sure enough, they put their Wall of Sound skills to good use on this cracker of a Christmas single. Listen to that chorus with the background whooos. You could easily imagine the Crystals sing their hearts out on this one.
13. Surf School Dropouts – Another Christmas with You (2013)
The last song here is one I co-wrote and recorded with the group I’m in last year. Please don’t throw tomatoes at me! I know it’s a bit cheesy and self-serving to include your own song but a fellow Spector fan whose opinion I respect urged me to feature it on the blog as he felt it was a great tribute to the Wall of Sound. So what the hell… I do think it encapsulates what this post has been all about. We tried to put everything but the kitchen sink into this one. Mandolins, dramatic strings, glockenspiels, 6 acoustic guitars playing in unison, … you name it.
So there you have it. I hope you discovered some cool songs you didn’t know before coming here. If they’ll bring you some holiday cheer throughout December my mission is accomplished. If you know of songs that would have fit here, please drop me a comment below. I’m always on the look-out for more stuff in the same vein. And if I happen to discover something similar this year I’ll of course write about it on the blog. So keep checking in.
Musings on Phil Spector's Wall of Sound and similar music…