Sinatra: Reprisals and Cultural Capitol

Cover of "The Capitol Years"
Cover of The Capitol Years

Further to yesterday’s post, I spent most of the morning listening to my suddenly-expanded Sinatra collection. I previously had a triple-disc set of his Capitol recordings and previously previously had a number of vinyls and cassettes. But, you know, a few house moves and computer changes down the line, I was down to a couple of MP3 files. Then my Dad died, and I picked up a few CDs that he had lying around. These include the aforementioned Songs for Swingin’ Loversand Come Fly With Me and Come Dance With Me, a couple of Greatest Hits compilations with Capitol recordings and yet another Greatest Hits collection from Reprise.

Ah, the Reprise years.

For some reason, there are reviews on Amazon which claim his Reprise re-recordings of some of the songs he first did at Capitol are superior. His voice is better, they claim, and the arrangements are “enhanced”, and the recordings better quality.

Wrong on all three counts, I think.

To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it’s the Capitol years, stupid.

In his first incarnation, Sinatra recorded for Columbia, and I’ve never found anything to love on those recordings. In his second, after a 3–4 year hiatus, he recorded for Capitol, putting out a couple of albums a year, on average, until the early 60s, when he set up Reprise.

Give or take a couple of outings with Count Basie, the Reprise stuff is pretty disappointing. Doobie doobie do…

It may well be the case that Sinatras 1960s voice had a superior tone or timbre. It may even be the case that the quality of sound on those records is technically superior (though I don’t hear this supposed superiority). What is true, however, is that his timing and phrasing is not better than his Capitol recordings, and the orchestral arrangements (pace Count Basie with Quincy Jones) are not enhanced. It’s like comparing Aretha’s records for Columbia with the later stuff she did for Atlantic.

Sinatra on Reprise doesn’t swing. Specifically, his re-recordings of numbers like “I Get a Kick Out of You”, “All the Way” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” don’t swing. It sounds to me like he’s snatching at the vocal, phoning it in. The Reprise arrangements are too schmaltzy, too lush with cheesy strings, and when he attempts something contemporary (“Yesterday,” “Mrs Robinson,” “Something”), he either drags the melody or grabs at it too eagerly. I know some will say that I’m referring to the legendary Sinatra phrasing, but I know the legendary Sinatra phrasing, and it’s not on Reprise, it’s on Capitol.

My Way: The Best of Frank Sinatra
My Way: The Best of Frank Sinatra (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is important, because if you were a younger person wanting to check out Sinatra, you might be seduced by the My Way: The Best of Frank Sinatra double CD set on Reprise, with its seductively youthful-looking (and possibly pre-Reprise) Frank on the cover art. It’s got all the tracks that you might have heard of, but a lot of them are inferior re-recordings. Yeah, it’s got “My Way,” which is horrible, and “New York, New York,” which is almost self-parody, and some other horrors, such as “Strangers in the Night,” but none of those tracks actually, you know, swings.

What you should be looking for is the 75-track The Capitol Years (£9.99 on iTunes), or the 96-track Capitol Singles Collection (£9.99 on iTunes). I wouldn’t get both, though, as there’s a lorra duplication. For only £2 less you can get 55 fewer tracks on The Best of the Capitol Years. Bargain! Wait, what? Also there are a lot of confusing, out-of-mechanical-copyright re-issues, if you can be arsed to trawl through and see what it is you’re buying. Yeah, there are 1,546 “albums” to trawl through, which is why your motto should be, it’s the Capitol years, stupid.

All of this copyright-free madness is a waste of everybody’s time, of course, like those apps on the app store that look like the thing you’re after, but aren’t it. There’s a lot to be said for sticking with canonical releases and avoiding compilations altogether. If you choose to go this route, be aware that the Capitol discography follows a pattern of torch songs on one record, followed by swing on the next. So In the Wee Small Hours followed by Songs for Swingin’ Lovers; Close to You followed by A Swingin’ Affair! It’s not always so exact, but the swing records (helpfully) often have the word “swing” in the title. There are some odd exceptions. Come Fly With Me is mostly croony love songs, bar the title track and one or two others (a concept album, is what it is). The title track of Nice ‘n’ Easy is superb (possibly, quintessentially, the one song you should buy if you were only going to buy one), but the rest of the album is ballads.

Finally, be very aware that Sinatra was very cynical and not above knocking out a couple of contractual obligation records when he wanted to hurry things along. He’d just turn up at the studio for a day and belt or croon out a few favourites: job done.

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