Various Artists: Hearing Is Believing: The Jack Nitzsche Story 1962-1979

various artists
Hearing Is Believing: The Jack Nitzsche Story 1962-1979
Ace Records


The name Jack Nitzsche was branded on my consciousness in 1981, when I was knocked out by the opening titles of Ivan Passer's Cutter's Way. This countercultural murder mystery kicks off with a slow-motion parade down Main Street in a Southwestern town, with señoritas sinisterly twirling batons in the noonday sun. Under these images you hear faraway music, slight, unhurried, created by instruments you can't quite identify. The effect is singular--music so "haunting" it's downright terrifying.

Only later did I learn the width and breadth of Jack Nitzsche's career as composer and arranger, an output paid exquisite respect by Hearing Is Believing: The Jack Nitzsche Story 1962-1979, a new anthology from Ace Records. A penny-ante copyist in the Lieber and Stoller era, Nitzsche is generally credited as the bricklayer for Phil Spector's wall of sound. Hearing collects a few masterpieces from the peak of the Spector-Nitzsche style: the Righteous Brothers' shimmering, wall-shaking "Hung on You," and the Paris Sisters' whispery "Always Waitin'"--a song so coolly laid-back it can drive you frantic with hunger. Drawn to the dark side by an early encounter with the Rolling Stones, Nitzsche invented a whole new style, stripped-down and nightmarish, that's little represented on Hearing. (To get it, listen to Nitzsche's arrangement for Mick Jagger's "Memo from Turner.") The collection does offer one of the strongest works of Nitzsche's dark period: Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Helpless," a mangy slice of Dylanesque glory-be that finally touches Nitzsche's glittering surfaces with an animating agent--soul.

A perfectionist and unapproachable mad scientist in the Spector mode, Nitzsche somehow managed to befriend and work with most of the major talents of his era, despite his often-fragile sound and taste for bizarre instrumentation that makes Jon Brion look like Glenn Miller. Even after forging a muzzy, dislocating style in his collaborations with Neil Young, Nitzsche was sought after to rebuild the wall of sound for a seedier era (leading to ninth-inning surprises like Ringo Starr's "Photograph"). All the diverse colors of Nitzsche remain surprisingly striking and fresh. I'd bet the rent that one of today's teen pop tarts, defying the machine-pressed Britney/Jessica/Ashlee beat-driven sound, will soon hurl a copy of Hearing Is Believing on her handler's desk, sulking, "Gimme one of these."

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