You already know the idea behind Frank Sinatra's new album: The Chairman of the Board remakes some of his signature tunes with the original arrangements and some famous guests -- Barbra Streisand, Liza Minelli, Carly Simon, Tony Bennett -- singing along. And you've probably heard the word-of-mouth on the results: Sinatra sounds like Joe Piscopo doing Sinatra, it's obvious the star and the collaborators weren't in the studio at the same time, and some of them -- U2's Bono, Gloria Estefan -- have about as much business doing standards as Sinatra would have doing heavy metal. All that's true, I'm afraid, but it doesn't prepare you for the unholy mess that is Duets.
Sure, the audible reality here is that Sinatra is simply years past it (and not just in vocal quality -- the magisterial phrasing of yore seems ossified, too.) And yes, the celebrities -- even the ones like Bennett who are on Sinatra's stylistic wavelength -- are essentially extraneous; thanks to the impersonal, un-interactive way Duets was recorded, they're more or less reduced to filling in the blanks Sinatra deigned to leave for them. But all that's really beside the point -- it's the concept behind the album that is monumentally wrong-headed. These songs were never intended to be call-and-response duels between superstars; they were written (by people who knew what they were doing) to be sung by an "I" to an audience. And so what we get here isn't some sort of historical meeting of the minds but rather a Wagnerian apotheosis of the celebrity musical numbers from old Fifties TV variety shows, the kind of show-biz exhibitionism that regularly matched up Odd Couples From Hell like Dinah Shore and Tennessee Ernie Ford.
That such an undertaking (and aesthetic) is rightfully obsolete these days seems not to have occurred to anybody involved with the making of Duets, but it's why, despite the high-profile talent involved, the album is pretty much unlistenable. On every level -- beginning with the tacky Leroy Neiman cover -- it was born kitsch. -- Steve Simels
Okay, here's the backstory.
I handed that review in in December of '93, when the album came out (Stereo Review had a three month lead time) and promptly forgot about it and went about my life. Sometime in early March of '94, however, my then editor (who small remain nameless out of a lingering sympathy on my part) called me into her office, closed the door, and looked at me with an expression that seemed equal parts panic and cold fury. I noticed she had a folder full of what seemed to be hand-written letters on her desk.
"Read these," she said, handing the folder to me.
I did, and sure enough, they were angry letters to the editor -- I seem to recall there were about fifteen of them -- taking me to task, often in colorful language unsuitble for a family mag like Stereo, for the Sinatra review reproduced above. I loved them of course. My boss, however, did not.
"Did you read those?" she asked.
"Well, what do you think?"
"I think they're great," I smiled. "Damn, I've been trying to get a reaction out of our readers for months now. Finally, we get one."
"What did you think you were doing when you wrote that?" she asked. I should have realized that the steam coming out of her ears was a bad sign.
I was slightly taken aback, but after a little thought I replied "Uh...I thought I was writing a funny, perceptive and interesting to read review of a big album."
She sat bolt upright. "It's not your job to write a funny, perceptive and interesting to read review!" she all but screamed.
I stared blankly. "It's not?"
"No," she hissed. "It's your job to make people feel good about what they've just bought or are about to buy!. You will never write a negative review like this again, do you understand?"
Well, after that I went back to my office about as my demoralized as I've ever been in my adult life, for obvious reasons, including, you may well think, a rather frightening naivete and innocence on my part. I remained on staff at the magazine for another couple of years untill I got a better offer at last; however, I will leave it to you readers to decide whether or not, as I have often thought, I was morally obligated to have quit on the spot.
In any case, remember that this happened in 1994. I seriously doubt things in the consumer magazine biz have changed for the better in the interim.