In case Darlene Love's name doesn't ring familiar, here's a quick bio: the 74-year-old established herself as a member of producer Phil Spector's stable of musicians in the early 60s, where she was lead singer of girl group The Blossoms, who were the actual recording artists on the 1962 hit song "He's A Rebel" (Spector credited the recording to The Crystals, another of his groups). Love also sang background vocals on classics such as The Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron", The Ronettes' "Be My Baby", Frank Sinatra's "That's Life", "Monster Mash", and songs recorded by names like Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, Tom Jones, and The Beach Boys. Her 1963 solo hit "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" stands as probably her best-known song and her performances of it on David Letterman's NBC and CBS shows became a late-December tradition every year from 1986 until 2014 (except in 2007 due to a television writers strike). That song and those performances even managed to always stir something resembling Christmas spirit in this otherwise grinch-prone writer. Recent years have seen Love's talent get proper recognition, with a 2011 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and she was the centrepiece of 2013's outstanding 20 Feet From Stardom documentary. You might also recognize her as the wife of Danny Glover's character in the four Lethal Weapon films.
The latest chapter in Love's career resurgence is the ironically titled Introducing Darlene Love, her first album of (mostly) secular material in almost 30 years. E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt quite capably assumes the Spector role on this project...minus the crazy. He produced, did the musical arrangements, plays guitar on numerous tracks, wrote three songs, and released it on his Wicked Cool Records label (in partnership with Columbia Records). The album's standout song, "Among The Believers", is one of his compositions (appearing originally on his second solo album) and, as the leadoff track, firmly establishes Introducing's overall tone: huge-sounding production, unapologetically bombastic vocals, and positive vibes. Love is the beneficiary of the songwriting services of the Boss from Van Zandt's "day job", Bruce Springsteen, on "Night Closing In" and "Just Another Lonely Mile". Springsteen has been a vocal supporter of Love's for years and he doesn't let her down with these excellent contributions, especially the latter track. It sounds like it could have comfortably resided on his 60s pop-leaning album from 2009, Working On A Dream. A really out-of-left-field song choice is "Little Liar", Joan Jett's late 80s power ballad hit, which sounds far better here with Love's powerhouse vocals and much deeper production. The epic six-and-a-half minute version of the Jimmy Webb-penned "Who Under Heaven" stands out as one of the album's finest tracks, as does a highly spirited take on Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High", a song that Love has a history with. It was originally slated by Spector to be recorded by the singer, only to have him change his mind and offer it to the Turners instead. Elvis Costello also contributes a couple of songs, the first-rate "Forbidden Nights" and one of Introducing's only weak tracks, the duet "Still Too Soon To Know", featuring some rather croaky vocals from Bill Medley of The Righteous Brothers.
Introducing Darlene Love emerged as one of the best albums I heard in 2015 and it's certainly the most uplifting collection of music I purchased during the year. Van Zandt's monstrous production, frequently comprised of lush orchestration, capably replicates and celebrates Spector's famed Wall of Sound and delivers a veritable ten course meal for headphone enthusiasts. And Love uses her dynamic vocal instrument to deftly move between various genres, from 80s rock, to her wheelhouse area of 60s pop and soul, to the full-on gospel she embraces on the album's final two tracks, "Marvelous" and "Jesus Is The Rock (That Keeps Me Rollin')". Nice to meet you, Miss Love.