People stop me on the street all the time and ask me what gives with all this reviewing albums recorded so long ago? Why am I going through long forgotten pop albums, why the Impressions One By One or this one? McCartney’s Red Rose Speedway (a revelation) or Twin Freaks. The reason is because I’m not as smart as I think I am. With the exception of In The Wee Small Hours, Songs For Swingin’ Lovers and a couple of others, I listened to Sinatra’s The Capitol Years, a three-disc set spanning the years 1953 to 1961, 75 legend making classic songs from the sort of run of recordings that turns singers into gods, when I want prime Frank. That was my go to Sinatra through the 1990s. But it meant that I was missing stuff, and the only way to find it is to listen to it.
The reward is Frank Sinatra’s album number twelve, Close To Me, I had never heard it before but it’s a right turn after we had become comfortable with Frank and Nelson recording swing albums followed by love hangovers. Close To Me was neither. It was an album with Nelson arranging less well known American 1950s pop ballads for backing band the Hollywood String Quartet. While you might not consider this a huge change, you will hear that it is a huge change, Close To Me is a flawed masterpiece: Nelson and Frank didn’t get it right, Nelson himself seemed stymied by rearranging big band ballads for Sinatra to sing with his friends violinist and conductor Felix Slatkin and his wife cellist Eleanor Aller. The urge to work with friends, plus Sinatra’s love of classical music (though Sinatra made a pop album) informs the sound, the strings are not the oom pah pah of piano and brass you associate with Frank, the mood is delicate, mellow, intriguing.
Sinatra is in great voice from one end to the other, simple as that. He neither pushes the songs the way he does on swing nor does he pull them to himself, the way he does on late in the night, rather he is all technique, the songs don’t leave in him the way they do on Riddle’s full on orchestrations but rather, drifts upon the melody line like a caress. Much like where he is reaching for, a classicists take, he is all absolute professionalism, the songs glide on his intelligent, compassionate (not passionate) singing, and the sell is far from hard but still very clear eyed.
It doesn’t help that while the material isn’t bad, it isn’t Cole Porter or the Gershwins. These slower, low key, ballads, are frail things. Think of movie songs like “From Here To Eternity” or “Three Coins In The Fountain” -the sort of songs that aren’t all there, they are missing a little something something. I don’t think there is one great song on the entire album, I will never complain about the title track or “Blame It On My Youth” for all their slightness, the mix of strings and quiet melodic tonics with a flute or a horn ushering you out, it’s lovely and calming stuff. Lovely without being great, and the arrangements are too fragile and though it took them eight months and five studio dates to record Close To Me, it still doesn’t feel entirely finished. “Frank liked it,” was Nelson’s conclusion. So did I.
return to the top of country
Creem – America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine, Reviewed Issue By Issue – January 1983 (Volume 14, Number 8)
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