Various Artists

He's a Rebel: The Gene Pitney Story Retold

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Short of a full-on Gene Pitney revival, with banners and headlines, the next best thing is To M'Lou's sensational tribute record He's a Rebel. The singer cannot be considered exactly obscure, but this album makes a good case that he is much more bafflingly overlooked than his artistry merits. Of course, it is near-impossible for any other artist to capture the resounding glory of Pitney's primary instrument -- that astonishing voice -- but this album's 25 songs accomplish the next best thing: to remind you just how impressive was his run of chart singles through the 1960s, only a few of them still accorded any rotation space on oldies radio. So important a transitional figure does he represent, in fact, that this project enticed some heavy guns -- Michael Shelley, Al Kooper (whose "I Must Be Seeing Things" is also given a fresh, Spector-esque polishing by the Waking Hours), the Deviants -- as contributors. As becomes immediately apparent from Randell Kirsch and Billy Cowsill's radiant rendering of "It Hurts to Be in Love," Pitney was making pop songs as vibrant as anything by the early Beatles, roughly his contemporaries, and even more versatile (though the British combo would soon pass him in that regard), another quality that comes shining through here. He could knock out lighthearted rockabilly (Tommy Womack on "Louisiana Mama"), a sandy beach tune ("Summertime Dreamin?" breezily done by Sparkle*Jets U.K.), or moonlit romance (Gail George's "Mr. Moon, Mr. Cupid and I") with silky ease. His teen ballads could be near-operatic expressions of angst and agony ("Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart," made even tearier in Chris Von Sneidern's version; the classic "Only Love Can Break a Heart," beautifully handled by Sleeping Giant) or simple and affecting (Shelley's "Walk," Glowfriends' shimmering "Oh, Annie, Oh"), but always contained a slowly escalating sensual tension just beneath the surface. He could also handle delightful bubblegum (Ed James' "Nobody Needs Your Love"; "Hello Mary Lou," written by Pitney and performed here by Ron Flynt), while Ferdinand even teases out garage possibilities, and Jeremy and the See Saw illuminating psychedelic ones. And few artists have been as good as Pitney at transforming camp into an art form, as an over-the-top cover of "Town Without Pity" by the Now People proves. An exquisite album and artist, each song an almost perfectly realized three-minute melodrama.

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