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Some of the superstar pairings on "Duets" find Ol' Blue Eyes matched up with wholly appropriate vocal partners; others amount to what is referred to in movie parlance as "stunt casting," more marquee value than chemistry.
So, as you might expect, it's a mixed bag of tricks. Here's the deal: As long as he's recutting his classic songs live in the studio with exactly the kind of orchestra that backed the originals, and the late, great Nelson Riddle is still accruing a good portion of the arrangement credits, Sinatra can do duets with Barney and we'll buy it.
His pairing with Bono is nearly as strange--though much more welcome--an idea. Most of the partners on "Duets" are the contemporary giants of easy-listening, but the inclusion of U2's mercurial lead singer as the sole rocker of choice is the album's one real risk, and certainly its most curiosity-raising track: What music fan would be blase enough not to salivate at the thought of the greatest pop singer of the '40s (and beyond) having a historic summit meeting with the greatest pop singer of the '90s?
The actual recording, of Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin," is about as weird as you might fear or hope. Sinatra's approach is straightforward, while Bono's is sort of a stylistic tour de force: He starts off in his sexiest, breathiest, most subdued low purr, trading off lines in the verses with Sinatra, and then, as they croon together on the chorus, breaks into the voice he's lately most fond of, his "fat lady" falsetto, continuing to scat along in \o7 faux\f7 soprano even in the instrumental break.
"Skin" ends up sounding like one of those satellite hookups U2 experimented with on its last tour: \o7 Come in, Hoboken! This is Berlin (via the moon)!\f7 It's an unnerving mismatch on first listen, even if you were exposed to Bono's previous loose take on Porter with "Night and Day"--but the cut grows on you, once you accept the saloon-vs.-cabaret collision, and the fact that, in the album's penultimate moment, Bono is the first partner gutsy (or foolish) enough to take such a major interpretive detour.
The album's other most eagerly anticipated pairing is Barbra Streisand's. A match made in heaven, or clash of the titans? Happily, it's closer to the former: Their "I've Got a Crush on You" transcends its blockbuster billing and stands as, in fact, probably the most congruously successful of all the album's star sing-alongs.
Essaying the Gershwins' classic come-on, the most youthful-sounding of all romantic sentiments, Sinatra's vocal is surprisingly tender--vulnerable, even--wooing his "sweetie-pie." And Streisand works gentle wonders around it, echoing and extrapolating on his phrasing, while never overpowering her stately suitor.
Streisand's professionalism has never been in doubt, but it's all the more evident in the way she so expertly complements Sinatra's vocal here. Not all the numbers are quite so graceful in their overdubbing.
While Sinatra recorded all his vocals live--usually in one take--with the orchestra, the other singers (also including Carly Simon, Liza Minnelli, Charles Aznavour, Anita Baker and sax man Kenny G) added their parts later. Sometimes, as with Streisand, it doesn't matter, but in a few moments it's all too obvious the partners weren't in the same room.
This is immediately evident in the opening track, "The Lady Is a Tramp," which has Luther Vandross double-tracking his own vocals in one spot. "Tramp" actually fares as one of the album's most charmingly arranged selections--and Vandross sounds terrific waxing jazzy along with a walking bass line--but subliminally, at least, the effect is strange: With Vandross singing along with himself, does this count as a trio?
The weakest tune, "What Now My Love," suffers the most from this wall of vocal separation, with Sinatra turning in uncharacteristically stiff phrasing while Aretha Franklin, no stiff she, shoots off around him in all the showy directions you might imagine from the Queen of Soul. If they had recorded their parts together, they might not have landed on such different airfields.
Among the others, Gloria Estefan and Julio Iglesias might help boost the album internationally, but just aren't up to Sinatra's caliber. Tony Bennett is, but their buddy-movie take on "New York, New York" is more a fun idea than a successful match.
Generally Sinatra meshes most comfortably with the female balladeers--with Natalie Cole, on the gently swinging "They Can't Take That Away From Me" coming in a close second to Streisand as the best thrush on his dance card here.
Regardless of how well the duets themselves fare--and none of them are embarrassments--the album is consistently thrilling in its sharply rendered charts (conducted by arranger-director Pat Williams), which surely deserved this digital dusting off. Here's hoping for the promised "Duets II," whose lineup is rumored to involve everyone from Bette Midler to Axl Rose.
\o7 New albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four (excellent).\f7
* SECOND TIME AROUND: A Frank-ophile compares the "Duets" with Sinatra's originals. Page 65