Sinatra `Duets' Showcase His Familiar Vibrant Voice

Despite flap over `phoned in' vocals, new album tops the charts

BY now, it is well known that Frank Sinatra was never actually in the room with any of the singing stars with whom he recorded his fabulously successful ``Duets'' album for Capitol Records (it is currently at the top of the charts). Sinatra recorded his vocals in one studio, while the other contributors literally phoned in theirs through elaborate digital transmissions.

It's too bad that this is common knowledge because it spoils the illusion of the latest example of what has become one of the hotter concepts in pop music right now.

This album has been engineered with such utter precision, you would never be able to tell that Sinatra hadn't actually been singing into the faces of his partners.

`DUETS'' contains 13 cuts in which the Chairman of the Board sings songs that he has recorded throughout his career, in collaboration with some of today's hottest stars.

Sinatra's first album in years, it reveals that, despite a voice that is increasingly creaking and raspy, he is still a masterly singer.

To be sure, years from now, when you put on a Sinatra album, it won't be this one - it will be one of his classic Capitol albums from the 1950s or something from his more mature phase at Reprise in the '60s.

But for now, ``Duets'' is a marvelous and nostalgic comeback from a singer who has been absent from the recording scene for many years. Tellingly, the cover art is a Leroy Neiman painting depicting Sinatra not as he is now, but as he was in his glory days.

The problem with ``Duets'' is that it isn't ambitious enough. Although the concept is a marvelous one, it was a mistake to simply re-record Sinatra's old hits with exactly the same arrangements, glorious though they may be.

In his next-to-last album, the brilliant and underrated ``She Shot Me Down,'' Sinatra sang torch songs in which he used his voice to marvelous effect.

Here, doing songs with which we are intimately familiar, he pales in comparison to his previous work. The original ``Summer Wind,'' for instance, is a classic - the remake, with Julio Iglesias singing at his most affected about ``two amigos,'' is just campy. Similarly, when we hear the familiar opening of ``New York, New York,'' it's a shock to hear Tony Bennett's voice.

Sinatra is nothing if not generous here. The album starts off not with his voice, but with Luther Vandross singing the opening of ``The Lady is a Tramp.'' Vandross, a wonderful vocalist, is in fine form, and the pair even engage in some scat singing. Except for some anachronistic ``chicks'' and ``broads'' on Sinatra's part, it gets the proceedings off to a swinging start.

The best duets are the simplest. Aretha Franklin's vocal swirls in ``What Now My Love'' seem a bit show-offy, as do Sinatra and Streisand's mutual endearments (she calls him ``Francis'') in ``I've Got a Crush on You.'' Carly Simon's cut is a blending of two songs, and the result is that the duet seems more distant than the others.

The most blatant affection on the album is from Tony Bennett, who virtually turns ``New York, New York'' into a Sinatra tribute, urging ``Tell 'em, Frank,'' and rephrasing the lyrics, singing ``You always make it there/You make it everywhere.'' At the end, when the two voices come together triumphantly, the effect is thrilling.

And in the aptly chosen ``You Make Me Feel So Young,'' the not-so-young Charles Aznavour adds an elegant touch of nostalgia. Probably the silliest duet is ``All the Way/One For My Baby,'' in which Sinatra sings around Kenny G's saxaphone noodlings.

The most talked-about pairing is ``I've Got You Under My Skin,'' performed with U2's Bono. At first, when you hear Bono croaking and growling, it seems ludicrous. But his vocal tricks, including a piercing falsetto, add a chillingly ominous subtext, and the contrast between the two generations of singers couldn't be more baldly stated.

In the chorus, when Bono sings ``Don't ya know, you old fool, you never can win,'' it's simultaneously mocking and affectionate.

Sinatra has always been a genius of a singer, and one thing he knows is how to overcome his diminished vocal power.

In a strong ``Come Rain or Come Shine'' (a ridiculous pairing with Gloria Estefan, who is out of her league), he uses sheer technique to put across the powerful finale. At the end of ``You Make Me Feel So Young,'' he bites off the phrases with a vibrant intensity that gives truth to the lyrics.

But his most moving moment is in ``One For My Baby,'' the classic saloon song that has been a trademark of his career. It is, fittingly, the last song on the album, and it is the one in which he sounds the worst.

His voice has aged, and he sounds positively exhausted singing about that ``long, long, man it's long, road.'' But when Sinatra sings ``I hope you didn't mind my bending your ear,'' it's hard not to take the question to mean his entire career.

Considering that it has been one of the most glorious in the history of popular music, it's safe to say that we didn't mind at all.

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