[15 August 2007]
While Frank Sinatra was the undisputed leader of the Rat Pack, Dean Martin was arguably the all-around coolest member of the hell-raising Hollywood quintet.
Each member had a role to play within the well-connected entertainment collective. Joey Bishop was the likeable comedian while the droll Peter Lawford was the suave actor with political ties. Sammy Davis, Jr. had the market cornered on talent with a tap-shoed foot in the worlds of dance, music, acting, and comedy. And of course, Ol’ Blue Eyes was at the forefront, one of the most widely recognized voices of all time with several notable acting contributions to his list of credentials.
While each man represented the concept of cool in his own way, Dean Martin was perhaps the coolest member of the Rat Pack due to his easy-going and accessible manner. Whereas Sinatra seemed to be untouchable unless you were in his inner circle, Martin seemed to be the kind of guy you could sit next to on a bar stool, laugh while throwing back some drinks, and somehow feel you’ve made a friend for life.
Undoubtedly, the man known to his fans and friends as “Dino” was incredibly talented in a wide array of entertainment genres, and Martin may have been the best pure vocalist of the Rat Pack. Sammy Davis, Jr. had a pleasant singing voice but was more of a song-stylist than a vocalist. Sinatra, famed for his rich, emotive clarity, would occasionally talk his way through a song. Martin combined the best of Sammy and Frank’s interpretive qualities and combined it with a strong, melodic range, singing and feeling every note and adding a touch of congeniality that shone through on each piece.
Martin’s appeal to this very day has garnered him a posthumous following well beyond the peak of his recording career and even that of his popular movies, variety shows, and celebrity roasts.
Utilizing a concept first made popular when Natalie Cole performed a duet with her departed dad, the late, great Nat “King” Cole, Forever Cool pairs up classic Dean Martin tracks with Dino still swingin’ and singin’ center stage with current artists in a wide representation of musical genres.
Starting out with the familiar intro, “direct from the bar, Dean Martin”, the disc kicks off with a nod to Martin as the world’s most beloved boozer, the guy who put the “fun” in “functioning alcoholic” before launching into “Who’s Got the Action” with SoCal swing band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. The neo-swing outfit blends seamlessly into the mix with no trace of decade-spanning evidence left to the listener’s ears.
Kevin Spacey guests on two of Martin’s most famous songs, “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” and “King of the Road”. Between his self-sung renditions of Bobby Darin’s music in the film and accompanying soundtrack for Beyond the Sea and his current work on this Forever Cool, Spacey seems to be carving out a niche for himself as a willing accessory to reinterpreting classics with respect to the originals in the vein of ‘40s and ‘50s crooners. Spacey does it well, not so much with his tongue planted firmly in cheek, but echoing Martin’s approach himself with a mildly campy reverence for the material. This approach is particularly evident on “King of the Road”; while Spacey took more of a background approach to Martin’s uber-classic “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head”, this time he’s an equal traveling partner, lending some snappy banter on the ride.
From the hills of Hollywood to the heartland, country also finds its place on Forever Cool. Shelby Lynne brings a light twang to “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You”, really playing up her interaction with Martin with a dash of Southern charm. The production values on this country-infused classic are top-notch.
Conversely, on “Baby It’s Cold Outside”, country chanteuse Martina McBride channels more Rosemary Clooney than Kitty Wells, while the track’s engineering mechanics make the piece sound spliced, less of a face-to-face answer-and-exchange between Martin and McBride. However, the vocal mannerisms employed by both singers make for a grand showcase of lyrical acting with Martin cast in the role of the sweet scoundrel trying to tempt McBride’s coy ingénue.
Continuing the parade of female voices alongside Martin’s on Forever Cool, “Baby-O” becomes a duet with Paris Bennett. Bennett—the 18-year-old granddaughter of Sounds of Blackness vocalist Ann Nesby and a finalist on the fifth season of American Idol—is possessed of a voice that, in spite of her youth, is polished and fits perfectly in this timepiece of a track. Bennett’s pipes are rather retro and well-suited to this style of music, sounding like a more giggly and contemporary version of the great Billie Holiday. Bennett’s track makes for a plausible and playful exchange between herself and the (if only in corporeal form!) decades-deceased Martin, resulting in a fun and flirty track.
“I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me” gets one of the most noticeable makeovers, courtesy of a feature performance by Joss Stone. While Stone treads the edge of the water with vocal showboating, her duet with Martin has perhaps the most modern feel of all of the collaborations on Forever Cool. The song successfully bridges the gap between Martin’s classic cool and Stone’s soulful, modern-throwback vibe and cements Martin’s timeless appeal and ability to touch and translate to a new generation of fans.
Not the only noteworthy Brit to appear on Forever Cool, pop chameleon Robbie Williams performs on a tepid rendition of “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone”. On this low-key song, Williams sounds more like Harry Connick, Jr. than he does himself. While still a solid, atmospheric track, it’s somewhat disappointing when you realize all that Williams could potentially bring to the table.
Instrumentalists also get their crack at teaming with Martin. Chris Botti plays a fine, yet surprisingly mellow trumpet on “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” and saxophonist Dave Koz puts a signature sound stamp on “Just in Time”.
Current pop artists aren’t the only ones to make an impact on the compilation. Charles Aznavour equally owns “Everybody Loves Somebody” alongside Martin. Having been branded as “the French Sinatra,” Aznavour is a contemporary of Martin’s whose voice has stood the test of time, still sounding as rich, clear, and youthful as it did decades before.
Closing out the album is a rare a capella gem with Martin taking his spotlight solo on “Brahms’ Lullaby”, his baritone losing all pretense of bombast or mischievous giddiness. In its place quavers a soothing, comforting nightcap that offers up proof that Martin may have indeed been the best pure vocalist of his Rat Pack crew and one of the all-time greatest interpretive masters of song.