The Voice: Gold turns rusty

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Frank Sinatra is usually described as a singular talent, a one-of-a-kind singer -- not just a voice, but THE voice. And though plenty of singers have tried to imitate his style or emulate his sound over the years, there has always been only one Francis Albert Sinatra.

And yet, after listening to his latest releases -- the modern, star-studded "Duets" (Capitol 89611) and the epochal, 12-CD set "The Columbia Years 1943-1952: The Complete Recordings" (Legacy/Columbia 48673) -- it's hard to shake the sense that you've been listening to two different singers.

On "The Columbia Years," the singer we hear is a sweet-toned crooner whose voice seems to savor the sound of every note. There's a grace to his phrasing and a lightness to his manner that makes even the most stilted lyrics seem lively, some how. And when he reaches for a high note, he nabs it with such ease and brilliance that, for a moment, you'd almost swear he was a lyric tenor.

And then there's the broken-voiced baritone who stumbles through an assortment of unlikely pairings in "Duets." Though it's apparent that he was once a great musician -- his timing is impeccable, he still phrases with authority -- his instrument is in shambles. It has power enough to belt out a melody, but its range is limited, its tone ragged, its pitch uncertain.

What a difference 40 years makes.

Yet "Duets" (which arrives in record stores today) is already one of the most talked-about albums of the year, while "The Columbia Years" has been cheered mainly by hard-core collectors. Granted, some of this might have to do with the fact that "The Columbia Years" lists for a wallet-choking $250, but that's just one factor at play here. After all, despite the high price, demand for the big box has been so strong that Columbia has sold out its first run of the set.

No, the real reason "Duets" has a bigger buzz is that it's an event.

Here, Sinatra goes one-on-one with some of the biggest names in popular music, including such stars as Barbra Streisand, Natalie Cole, Charles Aznavour and Gloria Estefan.

While some of the guests -- Tony Bennett, say, or Liza Minnelli -- share his taste and musical background, others come from another world entirely. And that, really, is the source of the excitement. Sinatra and Luther Vandross? Sinatra and Aretha Franklin? Sinatra and Bono?

Seeing as most of these stars are meeting Sinatra on his own turf -- vintage standards, sung with strings and brass the way he always has -- a lot of older fans are going to approach the album expecting to hear the master put these whippersnappers in their place.

It doesn't quite work out that way, though.

Why not? Because most of these whippersnappers have done their homework, and know how the songs should be sung. Some, of course, take that knowledge as an excuse to impose their own will on the arrangement, one-upping Sinatra in the process. Luther Vandross, for instance, tosses off "The Lady Is a Tramp" with such blithe facility that Sinatra's gruff garrulity seems forced and phony by comparison. Likewise, Barbra Streisand so totally defines the terms of "I've Got a Crush on You" that Sinatra sounds almost like a prop, an object of affection that just happened to be in the studio with her.

Not all the guests are so brash, though.

Natalie Cole, for example, seems perfectly at home with "You Can't Take That Away From Me," shaping each phrase with an unerring sense of swing and even tossing off a short-but-credible scat solo. If that doesn't seem much of a departure, given Cole's recent embrace of pre-rock pop, look at Anita Baker. On her own, she's generally come across as being less a jazz vocalist than a jazzy pop star, yet her singing on "Witchcraft" is an absolute delight, as lithe and lustrous as some of Sarah Vaughan's best work.

Even the lighter-weight singers here still manage to shine. Gloria Estefan may come across a tad too torchy on "Come Rain or

Come Shine," but that's more a matter of overwrought interpretation than stylistic ineptitude. Likewise, though Carly Simon never quite captures the sort of sardonic introspection "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" demands, it's not for lack of trying; she just doesn't have the voice for it.

But then, neither does he anymore, and that's the saddest thing about the album. It's not so bad when he merely drifts off pitch during the unison sections -- Cole even makes it seem endearing when she delivers the line "the way you sing off-key" in "They Can't Take That Away From Me" -- but it's kind of embarrassing to hear the way he brays through the final chorus of "New York, New York" (though Tony Bennett's half of the song is typically generous). And by the time he gets to the final verse of "One for My Baby," he sounds like he's already had a few too many.

What makes this especially sad is hearing how flat-out beautiful his voice sounds on the boxed set. "The Columbia Years" begin in 1943, when Sinatra was just a skinny, young kid from Jersey with a knackfor making the bobby-soxers swoon, and follow his development until 1952, the year he left for Capitol Records. And while it would be exaggerating to say every performance is worth hearing -- with 285 songs spread across 12 compact discs, you've got to expect some dreck -- it's hard to deny that this was some of the greatest singing he ever did.

Yet, for the most part, the songs he recorded back then were nothing like the stuff we associate with him now. How so? Because the sound most of us associate with Sinatra is swinging and hip, blessed with enough brash confidence to bring a sure sense of rhythm to even the quietest ballad.

Back then, though, Sinatra's approach was more lyric than rhythmic, emphasizing the flow of the melody and the sweet sonorities of his voice. That's not to say he couldn't get down; the way he sails through "The Hucklebuck," warming to its soulful cadences as if to the groove born, is proof enough of that. And he certainly did his share of hard-swinging numbers, as the likes of "Castle Rock" (with the incomparable Harry James) makes plain. But at that point, Sinatra hadn't yet settled into the jazzy, jivey persona that eventually defined his act.

Some of the performances included in "The Columbia Years" rank among his all-time greatest, including "Nancy (With the Laughing Face)," "Time After Time," "Laura," "Stella By Starlight," "Body & Soul" and "American Beauty Rose." But it's also interesting to note the songs that don't quite work. The Columbia version of "Soliloquy," for example, is wonderfully sung but somewhat shallow, lacking the rich characterization that makes the Reprise version such a classic.

"The Columbia Years," then, is essential listening for any serious Sinatra fan, while "Duets" will probably be of interest only to those who enjoy studying the pop star psyche. Does Sinatra even begin to suspect the degree to which Bono is poking fun at him in "I've Got You Under My Skin" (sings the U2 man, "Don't you know, Blue Eyes, you never can win?")? Does he care?

Or is he planning simply to laugh all the way to the bank?

LISTEN TO SINATRA

You can hear excerpts from Frank Sinatra's "The Complete Columbia Recordings" and "Duets" on Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service.

You will need a touch-tone phone. Call (410) 783-1800, or from Anne Arundel County, (410)268-7736. After the greeting, punch in 6117.

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