Jack Nitzsche (1937–2000) was one of the greatest arrangers at the dawn
of teenager music, yet it’s hard to fathom that the 26 songs collected on Hearing
is Believing
all have his thumbprint on them, so wide and adept is his reach.
Extending far beyond Nitzsche’s bubblegum beginnings, this retrospective compilation
is crammed with disparate sounds from clashing musical eras, from the Paris Sisters
to the Righteous Brothers to the James Gang.
Nitzsche’s iconoclastic, experimental work as both arranger and producer bridged
vast musical and pop-cultural gaps: He was the main mason of Phil Spector’s Wall
of Sound; he helped present the seminal T.A.M.I. Show concert and film
(1965), which united a generation of pop icons including James Brown and the Beach
Boys; he was also the key-banger for the Rolling Stones on their ABKCO records
and singles. After he swathed the latter in choirs, congas and French horns for
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and nearly drowned Neil Young in symphonic
strings for “A Man Needs a Maid,” film scoring was a natural next step.
Hearing Is Believing includes some of his destabilized film-score work (his love of wine and pills is renowned), from The Exorcist to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and these compositions blend comfortably with the rest of the collection’s deep cuts, singles and rarities. (This survey is hardly complete, but it does justice to its subject.)A student of every conceivable form of music, from mariachi to Native American drumming, Nitzsche infused his compositions with woozy, drunken bravado: Opener “The Lonely Surfer” is a twangy surf instrumental that soars to the heavens; on “Not for Me,” Bobby Darin fights it out with a greaser guitar and hop-head piano. Nitzsche’s version of Link Wray’s “Rumble” honks and lurches, a Frankenstein comprised of equal parts raucous ’50’s R&B and Richard Wagner (the familial dropping of “e” from his name does not disguise his roots reaching back to philosopher Nietzsche).
By the end of the ’60s, Nitzsche’s sonic palette had evolved to encompass a paradox
of lush wiriness: Dobro, harpsichord and pit orchestra converge on the James Gang
as they go for baroque amid the sirocco winds on “Ashes, the Rain & I.” The disc’s
peak is Marianne Faithfull’s fraught mewls on “Sister Morphine”; under Nitzsche’s
arrangement, the instruments — played by the Stones and Ry Cooder — nod in and
out of consciousness.
It all winds down with the closing theme from his Academy-nominated Cuckoo’s Nest. A delirious mélange of rubbed wineglasses, singing saw, sleigh bells, tribal tom-toms and orchestra, what might be chaotic, in Nitzsche’s hands, feels laconic and laid-back, never losing its elegance no matter how wasted it is. Or as Neil Young once put it, “Jack was pretty steady . . . He was just fucked up all the time.”THE JACK NITZSCHE STORY: Hearing is Believing 1962-1979 | Kent/Ace

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