Thursday, December 10, 2015

Strangers in the Night - Frank Sinatra

Strangers in the Night
Frank Sinatra
Reprise Records  FS-1017

There has been a lot of hoopla about Sinatra's centennial of late so I might as well jump on the bandwagon too.  I would not describe myself as a big fan of him even though I have about 20 of his albums.  He has long been a part of my life though, I knew who he was long before I knew about the Beatles.  Some of my earliest musical memories are my father playing his albums.  As best as I can recollect my father only had his Reprise albums even though most people (myself included) think he did his best work for Capitol Records.  I didn't particularly like what I heard as a child, I thought Sinatra was one of those adult things like alcohol, sex and cigarettes that was part of the world of my parents and their friends.  My stepfather was also a big Sinatra fan and he was the first person to point out to me that Sinatra sounded different with different arrangers.  When I saw Sinatra on TV back then I was repelled by him, he seemed arrogant and remote.  I greatly preferred his cohorts Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. as well as warmer crooners like Andy Williams.  After I got into rock music I wanted nothing to do with this stuff.  I only started to like Sinatra when I started watching old movies and saw him when he was young and more likable in films like "Anchors Aweigh," "Guys and Dolls" and especially "On The Town."  I started buying his albums when I was in my late 20s and I admired his peerless vocal technique, the rich timber of his voice and the quality of his material.  Nonetheless when it comes to pop crooners I've always preferred warmer and jazzier singers like Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald.  This album is far from my favorite but I think it is one of his more interesting ones for Reprise.  The title track was a hit single and one of Sinatra's best known songs even though he supposedly hated it.  I like the song's overt romanticism although the arrangement is pretty corny.  It is the only song on the album not arranged by Nelson Riddle and it sounds different from the rest of the record.  "Summer Wind" is my favorite track on the album and one of my favorite tracks from the Reprise era of Sinatra's career.  Riddle's arrangement is brash and swinging, it gives the song plenty of oomph which seems to inspire Sinatra.  "All or Nothing at All" swings even harder, it is another one of the best tracks on the record.  Sinatra recorded the song several times throughout his career but this is by far my favorite version.  Riddle slows down Tony Hatch's "Call Me" for Sinatra, it sounds different than the familiar versions by Chris Montez and Petula Clark.  The arrangement suits Sinatra's style but it also exposes the inane lyrics.  Sinatra goes back into the past with Walter Donaldson's "You're Driving Me Crazy!" from 1930.  Riddle gives the song a swinging modern arrangement that makes the song almost unrecognizable.  Sinatra muffs the lyric at one point but I guess he was okay with that.  One of the perks of owning the record company I suppose.  Side two opens with "On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)."  My father used to play Barbra Streisand's version often which is a lot more dramatic.  Riddle's arrangement is looser and punchier given almost a bluesy feeling from the piano and organ.  Sinatra's vocal is a bit laid back, even sloppy in places but I prefer it to Streisand's perfection, it has more life.  "My Baby Just Cares for Me" is another Donaldson oldie that Riddle breathes new life into with punchy brass and swinging organ lines.  Sinatra's swagger serves him well on this cut.  Sinatra borrows another song from the Petula Clark catalog with "Downtown."  It is an uptempo arrangement that Sinatra practically clowns his way through.  He makes the song sound silly and exerts little effort to hide his contempt for the song.  He takes a third crack at a Walter Donaldson oldie with "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" from 1925.  Riddle makes the old chestnut swing and Sinatra sounds like he's enjoying himself as he belts out the lyrics.  Riddle saves his most exciting arrangement for the album closer, Rodgers and Hart's "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World."  Driven by frenetic bongos, the band races through the song inspiring Sinatra to deliver an energetic and forceful interpretation  It is another one of my faves and gives the album a rousing finish.  I suspect the album was just another day at the office for Sinatra, he sounds uninspired even disdainful at times but he was so gifted that he sounds good even when he's not really trying.  Nelson Riddle does manage to get a rise out of him a few times and he does an admirable job of keeping things interesting when Sinatra checks out.  Even though I'm older than my parents were when they were big Sinatra fans, he's never going to mean as much to me as he did to them.  I like his music, I admire his voice, I can even respect his vision, but I don't relate to him like they did.  I'm practically the same age as Sinatra was when he recorded this album, but to me he is always going to be that old guy who represented the values and experiences of my parents' generation.  He was their voice.  For me that role was fulfilled by the Beatles and Bob Dylan.  Nonetheless I'm happy to acknowledge his upcoming 100th birthday and express my appreciation for his spectacular body of work.  Recommended to people who believe that "it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."

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