23 December 2008

Sinatra: No (X-)mas! No (X-)mas!

On Tuesday, 23 December, I did my annual WFCS Christmas radio show on "Frank, Gil, and Friends," during which I played a good chunk of Sinatra's official Christmas albums from Capitol and Reprise Records.

While I'm a huge Sinatra fan (why else would I have hosted a Sinatra program for the past 15 years and published two books?), I've never warmed to his post-Columbia Christmas recordings.

To put it bluntly, they ain't Bing (or even Andy Williams, for that matter). Only yesterday's show brought out the "why" to me. Unlike almost everything else he recorded (and, most certainly, unlike his very best songs), I don't believe a word he's singing.

If, as is commonly believed (and, to my mind, as is correct), Sinatra's remarkable strength as an interpretative performer comes from telling stories through his songs, and if, in doing so, he makes his audience believe he's telling those stories to each of them alone, then way too much of A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra, arranged by Gordon Jenkins (1957), Twelve Songs of Christmas (with Bing Crosby and Fred Waring) (1964), and The Sinatra Family Wishes You a Very Merry Christmas (1968), sounds as if he's reading a phonebook into a megaphone on Main Street. Almost none of the recordings, and certainly none of the traditional hymns or carols he recorded in the '50s and '60s, is subtle, sincere, or intimate...which may be a tall order for any singer, but he IS Frank Sinatra, so it should NOT be too tall an order for him.

Aside from "Mistletoe and Holly" and "The Christmas Waltz," both written specifically for him, the songs come off stiff and stagy: too somber to be enjoyed (much less joyous), not heartfelt enough to be heartwarming, or too kitschy to ring true. The frequent choral arrangements don't help the intimacy, but, even alone, he never actually convinces me that it matters whether "All ye Faithful" actually come or whether "It" indeed "Came Upon the Midnight Clear."

His recording for Columbia Records in the '40s fare far better, perhaps due to his more angelic voice and swell Axel Stordahl arrangements, but Sinatra seems equally comfortable balladeering -- e.g., "Christmas Dreaming (A Little Early This Year)" -- and swinging -- e.g., "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."

Most importantly, however, the proof that they work is plain: I believe.

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