Capitol retrospective shows Frank Sinatra at his best
THE CAPITOL YEARS
By JEREMY HYLTON
FRANK SINATRA IS FAMOUS. Famous in a way few people are -- in a category with Elizabeth Taylor or Andy Warhol, not famous necessarily for his particular talents, but famous simply because of who he is. Once Kitty Kelley has written about you in a fictography, you cease to be a real person. You become what Spy magazine calls a "coaster," someone whose accomplishments have guaranteed him or her stardom forever.
This is certainly true of Ole' Blue Eyes. When I think of Frank Sinatra, I don't think of music. I think of that singing sword from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the singing and acting, down-on-his-luck nephew of Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather, the actor who was almost as good as Gene Kelly in On The Town. Sure, he's a singer, but he is more famous as a personality; musically I have always classified him with Wayne Newton and Liberace: Avoid at all costs.
Imagine my surprise and amusement when Capitol Records sent The Tech a copy of Sinatra's recently released catalog of songs recorded at his peak in the 1950s, Frank Sinatra: The Capitol Years. Did Capitol Records really think college kids, whose tastes lean more towards REM and Fishbone, or the Trash Can Sinatras, would give Frank Sinatra a good review?
Maybe Capitol was not as wrong as I thought. After listening to a selection of 11 songs from the three-CD set, I discovered a certain appreciation for the album. Sinatra, whose voice is unquestionably beautiful, has captured the work of some of the best songwriters of the time and rendered it with genuine emotion.
The 75-song collection, released in honor of Sinatra's 75th birthday, highlights the work of the most productive phase of his career, 1953-1962. Sinatra signed on with Capitol in 1953, after his career came to a crashing halt in the late 1940s. A combination of changing musical tastes and a scandalous romance with Ava Gardner had ended his career with Columbia Records, where he was the label's, and all of popular music's, biggest star.
The voice that emerged at Capitol was nothing if not more powerful than that of Sinatra at his height a decade before. Often working with Nat King Cole's arranger Nelson Riddle, Sinatra's singing became more deeply emotional and interpretive, comparable in style and power only to Billie Holiday.
The songs on The Capitol Years range from the big-band dance tunes of "Come Dance With Me" to romantic ballads with a strong blues influence, like "Learnin' the Blues."
"Learnin' the Blues" is one of the best tracks on the album. Sinatra is at his moody, brooding best as he laments the betrayal of his love:
You'll walk the floor
And wear out your shoes.
When your heart breaks,
You're learning the blues.
There are also some fun throw-aways, like Cole Porter's "I Get A Kick Out of You." The song starts with the brassy sound of the back-up band, still sounding a bit like Tommy Dorsey's big band with ridiculously muted trumpets. The song is a classic, and Sinatra sings it well, but he gets a bit carried away. He sings,
I get no kick from cocaine.
I'm sure if I took just one sniff
It would bore me terrifically
But I get a kick out of you.
Sinatra holds on to the `f' in "terrifically" forever. The effect forces the rhyme with "sniff," but sounds silly -- not bad, just silly.
When hearing songs like "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," it comes to mind that the song, the title track from a mid-1950s album, went to the top of the charts. It is nothing like today's chart-topping songs, whose lyrics run more along the lines of this Paula Abdul classic: "It's the way that you love me. / It's the way that you love me. / It's the way that you love me . . . " ad nauseum.
The most appropriate cut to include on the album is probably "Nice 'n' Easy." This is emotional, but old and easy, pop music -- a little sassy, too. Relax and listen to the velvety, sonorous voice of one of Hollywood's best singers. It is a far cry from the hard-edged, industrial sound of Nine Inch Nails, but the change is surely worth it.
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