It's been nearly wall-to-wall Frank around the Cave this week, and I can't give you any specific reason why -- it just seemed like a good idea. During the freakout, I've listened to just about every one of his Capitol-era albums, a period when even throwaway material is usually redeemed by a singer in his prime discovering his powers as a master interpreter.
The Capitol albums also feature some landmarks in Sinatra's early adoption of the longer LP format as a vehicle for a unified concept rather than a delivery service to recycle some hit singles and filler material. While it can perhaps be argued by naysayers that he only picked a couple concepts and repeated them several times, the results are interesting just for their dichotomy: love in bloom and the loneliness when it fades.
Of all these discs, I tend to return to the ones falling on darker side of the equation -- Only the Lonely, Point of No Return -- more often than the frothier charms of, say, A Swingin' Affair or Songs for Swingin' Lovers. And of the melancholic material, it's hard to beat In the Wee Small Hours.
The album is a stark change of pace from his previous two sets, the 10-inch LPs Songs for Young Lovers and Swing Easy. Those discs -- along with an Academy Award for the film From Here to Eternity -- had also marked an overall change for Sinatra, getting his career back on track in a direction no longer aimed at the teenagers of a decade or so before. The downbeat Wee Small Hours puts an exclamation point on that transition; if I'd been a teenager in 1955, I can imagine dancing to the uptempo sets, but not being too into a snail-tempo song cycle about lost love.
Sinatra's wounded vocal stylings are only half of the equation of what makes this a great album, as the spare yet intricate arrangements of Nelson Riddle serve well to up the isolation ante. Often only a few orchestra members are participating, at times giving the songs a nearly disjointed feeling, which meshes well with what may include Sinatra's gentlest moments on record. It's not an album devoid of humor, though, thanks to Riddle's playful and somewhat eccentric arrangement of "Mood Indigo."
Perhaps the biggest trick with In the Wee Small Hours over the years has been finding a good copy of the album as originally issued on vinyl. The initial release in 1955 came out in a novel number of ways: The complete 16-track LP, a pair of eight-track 10-inch LPs and four 45 rpm EPs! However, good luck finding an original 1950s full-length pressing that wasn't either played a million times or on equipment designed for 78s.
Complicating things is the fact that Capitol has often had a cavalier attitude with reissues of older material when they have bothered to keep things in print at all, and Sinatra's catalog has been treated no differently over the years. Much of his monophonic material was remixed in the early '60s to add reverb; far worse is their fake stereo "Duophonic" processing. Adding to the chaos is the fact that Hours has most often only been available in versions with various shorter track listings. And in classic Capitol fashion, a 2009 vinyl reissue went out with an incorrect track, which has since been corrected. At least they bothered to bring it back into print on vinyl, for however long it lasts. (Capitol, 1955)