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“In The Wee Small Hours of The Morning” reviewed by Mike Nessing: This Thing Called Love

Depending on who you ask, In The Wee Small Hours is the first successfully executed concept album. Meaning that one unified theme is a common thread throughout each and every song. That being the theme of lost love and isolation. Sinatra had attempted previously to release something that would be more than just an album of songs. Now with the birth of the new 33 1/3” LP format and it’s long playing capability, Frank’s vision would at last bear the desired fruit.

The title track and album opener is a sublime combination of orchestra and voice. Two verses, no chorus. The second verse is not even initially sung. It is instead played by searing violins that carry the melody Frank introduced us to in verse one. The tune does not leap out at you to convince you of its greatness. No, instead it casually spills out of the speakers and presents itself quite matter-of-factly.

Other selections, like Cole Porter’s glorious “What Is This Thing Called Love?” get similar treatment. A lone clarinet slithers across the intro. This is the sound of sex itself. When sounds like this can emote wave upon wave of visual imagery one truly wishes that the music video had never been invented. This is what music is supposed to do to you. It’s supposed to make you close your eyes and fantasize. Sinatra’s vocals here are the best examples I can cite when I say that his voice is being used as an instrument. It slides like a trombone and bellows like a bassoon. Always with the orchestra and never overpowering, it is nothing less than a staggering mixture of sounds.

No shortage of great songwriting on this album either, and Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” carries on the album theme. This selection is the one ballad that even approaches an up tempo, highlighted by some wonderfully perky saxophone. Nelson Riddle’s arrangements feature orchestral flourishes words will ultimately fail to describe. They are like delicate lace curtains intricately woven, but always in perfect taste.

Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart are dutifully represented here with three tracks penned by them. Of these, “Glad To Be Unhappy” is currently the personal favorite. Another casual masterpiece, with lyrics like “Since you took it right on the chin, You have lost that bright toothpaste grin….My mental state is all a-jumble.. I sit around and sadly mumble….Fools rush in, so here I am… Very glad to be unhappy”… Sinatra starts by referring to someone in the third person, but we soon find out that the singer is singing about himself, perhaps looking in a mirror. Again, here is searing visual imagery accomplished only by the use of words packing an emotional wallop. That’s why they called them standards, folks.

Certainly on an album of standards, it goes without saying that you have to include the great Hoagy Carmichael. His “I Get Along Without You Very Well” fits the theme of this platter like a glove. Here, Sinatra is most convincing as a man in denial trying to move on from a break-up. His personal life’s trials (Ava Gardner) parallel the lyrics eerily here as if it was written about him. The emotions being poured out are palpable. His voice breaks up just a little when he sings “except in spring” as if about to cry……whew.

So this record serves as a signpost, a signal to the then record buying public and the music industry as a whole that a record can be much more than a mere collection of tunes. It also continued the sweet rebirth to Frank’s recording career on the Capitol label after being dropped by Columbia. Both a critical and commercial success , it spent 18 weeks at #2 on Billboard, and is regularly cited among trade periodicals and other printed media as among the greatest records of all time.

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