As with anything Phil Spector has had a hand in, "Back to Mono (1958-1969)" (Abkco 7118, arriving in record stores today) is quite a production.
Its first and most obvious draw is that it offers 60 examples of the legendary producer's work, most for the first time in digital, and some for the first time ever in the U.S. Moreover, this four-CD (or four-cassette) set includes the whole of Spector's "A Christmas Gift for You," an album many consider to the definitive rock Christmas album. Plus, it has all the usual box-set trappings -- elaborate packaging, an illustrated booklet with liner notes and lyrics, even a "Back to Mono" button.
As a monument to Spector's "Wall of Sound" recordings, it's an impressive package, right down to its brick-embossed cover. But it isn't really the landmark it claims to be.
There's no doubting Spector's claim to history. After all, the singles he crafted for the Crystals, the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers and others illuminated a transitional period in popular music, as rock and roll moved from the practiced innocence of Elvis and Chuck Berry to the knowing sophistication of the Beatles and Bob Dylan.
Singles like "He's a Rebel," "Be My Baby" and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' " (by the Crystals, Ronettes and Righteous Brothers, respectively) all captured the bliss and torment of teen romance, but presented it with a self-aware sense of grandeur and artifice. In Spector's universe, the image of two hearts beating as one was never quite as important as the reality of a rock orchestra playing as one, and it was his near-maniacal emphasis on aural effect that made his singles stand out.
But what was distinctive then seems dated now. Digital sound does nothing to enhance Spector's vision; if anything, its sonic clarity works against these singles, making them seem cluttered and claustrophobic. Details that blurred into the background on vinyl now leap out at the listener, exposing the sonic architecture and throwing Spector's mix off balance. For instance, when the Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron" popped up on radio, none of us knew or cared that the piano vamp was being reinforced by somebody beating triplets on a ride cymbal. Here, however, that "clickety-clickety-clickety" almost overpowers the piano, giving us a better sense of the mechanics than the magic.
Moreover, the aesthetic Spector drew from has not held up. Back in the early '60s, when pop radio still looked to Broadway and Tin Pan Alley for hits, the stagy sweep of Spector's productions seemed thrillingly adult; now, it more often than not sounds hokey and overblown, from the boom-crash dramatics of the Crystals' "And Then He Kissed Me" to the tinkling glockenspiel and rumbling thunder in the Ronettes' "Walking In the Rain."
That's not to say this set won't please those in need of a nostalgia fix, or those collectors eager to hear rarities like Darlene Love's version of "Chapel of Love." But unless you approach "Back to Mono" with the memories of a true believer, Spector's "Wall of Sound" is unlikely to impress.