Given both the nature of Frank Sinatra's reputation and the exceptional sales engendered by his last album, "Duets," it shouldn't come as any surprise that its sequel, "Duets II" (Capitol 28103, arriving in stores today), is the focus of a large and ambitious publicity campaign.
Considering the names on the new album -- Linda Ronstadt, Lena Horne, Gladys Knight, Willie Nelson, Neil Diamond and Chrissie Hynde, to name a few -- it's easy to understand why the record company folks would be eager to, er, "start spreading the news." Even so, you have to wonder about people who would issue a press release insisting that Sinatra has "achieved unanimous praise for his recordings since his first session seven decades ago in 1939."
Excuse me, but 1939 won't be "seven decades ago" until 2009.
Unfortunately, that's not the only thing about "Duets II" that doesn't add up. In spite of its star-studded guest list and standard-heavy song selection, the album comes across less as an example of what made Sinatra a legend than as evidence of how much that legend has faded with time.
That isn't because his voice has lost strength and luster over the years; if anything, he sounds almost suspiciously good, exhibiting few of the minor flaws that marred "Duets" (and none of the major failings heard onstage during his last tour). No, it's the way his duet partners treat him that leaves Sinatra seeming oddly diminished by this project.
A duet ought to be a collaboration, a coming together, a show of mutual respect. But what we get on "Duets II" often seems like nothing more than a splice job, as the two voices work their way through each verse without any real sense of interaction. Forget about not sounding as if Sinatra and his partners were in the same room; in such cases as Patti LaBelle's performance on "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," it's as if they are under the impression that they've been booked to sing a solo.
Of course, it's worth noting that when Sinatra recorded the first ,, "Duets" album, he wasn't in the same room as any of his co-stars. Thanks to advances in digital technology, all the other singers were literally able to phone in their parts. "Duets II," however, seems to have been recorded at an even greater remove, with many of the guest vocals dubbed in after Sinatra and the orchestra cut the basic track.
How, exactly, this was done is hard to say (and there are no specifics in the album credits). "For Once in My Life" allegedly brings Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder together with Sinatra, but sounds as if Wonder's contributions (most of which are on harmonica) were tacked on well after the fact. Then there's "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?/My Funny Valentine," which has Lorrie Morgan singing the former and Sinatra handling the latter. A nice idea, but not only does Sinatra sound utterly disconnected from Morgan (as well as only tangentially aware of the melody), but the large-room resonance his part has makes it sound completely different than Morgan's close-miked voice.
Then there are the stylistic mismatches. Although the idea of Sinatra and Chrissie Hynde singing the "Guys and Dolls" chestnut "Luck Be a Lady" together makes terrific marketing sense, it really doesn't work as a musical event. That's in part because the duet approach makes mush of the lyrics' sense of wordplay, but mostly because Hynde's brash delivery seems almost a parody of standard-singing. Then there's "Mack the Knife," in which duet partner Jimmy Buffett tries embarrassingly hard to be a one-man rat pack. (Margaritaville ain't Vegas, Jimmy.)
Fortunately, that isn't the case with every track. There's enough rapport between Sinatra and pals Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme on "Where or When" that it's hard to imagine the three weren't within touching distance when they recorded. There's a similar sense of immediacy to the "Embraceable You" he cut with Lena Horne. Perhaps the album's most pleasant surprise, though, is Linda Ronstadt's wonderfully warm contribution to "Moonlight in Vermont," which more than makes up for the over-ambition of her own albums of standards.
Still, no matter how well (or how badly) his partners sing, the fact is that Sinatra is well past his prime as a singer. It used to be that he could finesse a phrase with such sublime confidence that it would seem the epitome of elegance and swing; now, he punches and growls, treating the melody as just a rough guide, and the rhythm as if it were a blunt instrument. It's as if he's gone from sounding like Frank Sinatra to sounding like Joe Piscopo's Sinatra routine.
There is one track, "My Kind of Town," that does convey a sense of the old sweetness and charm. But it's Frank Sinatra Jr. who provides that, not his dad. Could it be time to pass the torch?
To hear excerpts from Frank Sinatra's "Duets II,"call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6242 after you hear the greeting.