Counterbalance: Frank Sinatra – Songs for Swingin’ Lovers

291st most acclaimed album of all time, you make me feel there are songs to be sung, bells to be rung and a marvelous fling to be flung. A pre-rock masterpiece is this week's Counterbalance.
Frank Sinatra
Songs for Swingin' Lovers

Klinger: Make no mistake, popular music in the 20th century was split nearly down the middle with the advent of rock and roll. And the result was something like a street brawl, fought out in the newspaper columns and nightclub stages and dining room tables of America. The old guard took every opportunity to take potshots at this new, sexually/morally/ethnically ambiguous form, while the youngsters bobbed and weaved their way through the whole skirmish, confident that they’d at least end up winning the war of attrition. That’s the official story at least, and it’s not without its truths. But too many people, musician and critic alike, took the whole thing a little too literally, and as a result the age of rock criticism hasn’t done much more than pay lip service to the music that came before the Great Divide.

And that’s a shame, because it means that pioneering albums like the ones Frank Sinatra made for Capitol in the 1950s end up getting short shrift. It’s true that Sinatra has two albums in the lower reaches of the 200s on the Great ListIn the Wee Small Hours is at No. 275 and this week’s Counterbalance, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, is at No. 291, but even that belies the potency of the music found here. I’ve chosen to focus on Songs for Swingin’ Lovers because it’s probably the better point of entry for the uninitiated. (In the Wee Small Hours may be more important, what with it being an early concept album and all, but it is a suitably drowsy affair.) Songs for Swingin’ Lovers is an absolutely breathtaking album, one that pairs a singer at the height of his powers with an arranger who can meet him where he is, spar with him and eventually spur him on to something even greater.

Klinger: The early recordings of Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle might have been among the key musical collaborations in popular music. Not only that, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. Are you with me so far, Mendelsohn?

Mendelsohn: I’m with you. In fact, I was slightly ahead of you. I had picked up a copy of In the Wee Small Hours with the intent of submitting it for consideration, but after listening to it several times and falling asleep halfway through I begged off the idea. Thank you for forcing the issue. Songs for Swingin’ Lovers is much more fun.

I find it interesting that you mention the Great Divide. Getting to know a little more about Old Blue Eyes for this week’s assignment, I found out that he wasn’t a fan of the young upstarts who sought to usurp his throne, a throne he had lost once before and worked diligently to reclaim, succeeding with a string of releases on Capitol in the 1950s.

Seeing a young rocker coming up behind him Sinatra noted, “His kind of music is deplorable, a rancid smelling aphrodisiac. It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people.” A statement I find funny because he was referring to the relatively benign work of Elvis Presley. Presley chided Sinatra for the remark, but it was only a couple of years later that the King and Tom Jones were making plans to beat up John Lennon, on account of his anti-war stance. So it goes.

But I digress, we were talking Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, not beating up some hippie peacenik. You’ve laid out your case for this record, care to elaborate a little?

Klinger: Where to begin? I think the album’s quintessence can be found in Sinatra’s rendition of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, a song that had been written more than 20 years prior by Cole Porter (in fact, there are so many of these reworkings of songs that were old-timey even then that it’s easy to think of Sinatra approach as analogous to a pop-punk band today taking on a Michael Jackson song). As Sinatra moves in on the original melody, the band buoys him up just enough. But he just keeps letting it build just a little bit—on through the bridge and into the second chorus. Then suddenly the band comes in and blows the doors off for the instrumental break, especially the unhinged trombone solo (allegedly recorded over the wrong chords just to give it that off kilter feel). And that’s when Sinatra takes the gloves off.

In his later years, Sinatra would get chided for peppering every song with “koo-koos” and “hey jacks” or whatever, but what he was really doing was punching up against the rhythm of the song, finding new ways to come in behind or ahead of the beat just enough to keep people guessing. Riddle got that, and built arrangements that would kick right back. That back and forth not only does justice to a Cole Porter song, but it also elevates a number like “It Happened in Monterrey”, which could just as easily be a breezy little travelogue and instead is a tour de force for both singer and orchestra. It’s easy to skim the surface, I guess, and only hear the pleasantries, but Songs for Swingin’ Lovers is a complex album that’s filled front to back with awesome little musical bits that seem to come from nowhere. Anything jump out at you?

Mendelsohn: Man, I have no idea. I’m just now beginning to realize how deep this record goes. I’ve heard most of these songs countless times over the course of my life. “Pennies from Heaven”, “You Make Me Feel So Young”, and “Anything Goes”, are immediately recognizable. The rest of the record is full of material that I wouldn’t be able to name but have heard before. And all of it is great. That subtle push and pull between Sinatra and the orchestra is such an intricate dance, so smooth and seemingly effortless that it is easy to overlook and pass off as whimsy from a bygone era. Coming into this record, that was my major concern. How would I reconcile this piece of work within the Pop Canon? It’s obviously dated, so removed from current fashion by virtue of the big band swing and Sinatra’s crooning, that it would be hard to imagine anyone picking up this record and not feeling a little put off by it’s old-timey vibe. But, as we’ve noted on many albums, the music isn’t necessarily dated, but merely evocative of a certain era.

Sinatra and Riddle managed to create an indelible piece of pop music and may be the first example of a performer and a producer joining forces to create a piece of work neither would have been able to achieve without the other. It is a trend that continues to be played out in studios today, moving from the likes of George Martin and the Beatles, to Todd Rundgren and XTC, to Steve Albini and Nirvana. It is a synergy that goes to the heart of creation that helps drive some of these special records. I think, once you realize Songs for Swingin’ Lovers follows that pattern, it is easy to look beyond the ornate orchestration and silly euphemisms (“Making Whoopee”!) to see there isn’t that much of a divide separating Sinatra’s music from the rest of the Canon.

Klinger: Well, not to be pedantic about things, but Riddle was the arranger on Songs for Swingin’ Lovers (Voyle Gilmore was the producer). The arranger was the one who composed the various horn, string and wind parts that would drape over the chords and melody. The producer mainly oversaw the recording. During the rock era, as more bands basically did their own form of arranging (two guitars, bass, drums? Check.), the producers role became the dominant one—although to be fair, Martin and Rundgren did their share of arranging as well. And “Makin’ Whoopee” might be silly-ish, but it provided Sinatra with an opportunity to wind his way through the melody and the rhythm by using a song from 1928 that most of his audience would be relatively familiar with. Coltrane did a similar thing when he used “My Favorite Things” to demonstrate modal jazz, but his record’s not funny.

And choosing those older songs was also a canny choice on Sinatra’s part. Crooners like him (and Bing Crosby and, uh, Al Hibbler) were viewed as Satan’s minions by the old guard of the generation before, who expected you to sing into a megaphone and clearly enunciate for the folks in the balcony. Their smooth, low, come-hither voices were also viewed as a rancid smelling aphrodisiac meant to corrupt their pristine girlchildren. Delivering these types of songs in this manner told us three things: a) the crooners had one, once and for all; b) technology meant that singers no longer had to rely on megaphones to make their voices heard, so their lower, sexier register could finally be employed; and c) these old songs were both a profound influence on Sinatra’s ilk and a hoot and a half.

And while it’s that sense of fun that makes Songs for Swingin’ Lovers such a joy, it’s also the realization that there’s a lot going on here—more than I feel like we can really even unpack here. But since we’ve had so few chances to talk about pre-rock vocalists (bear in mind, that might be about to change. I’ve been in a mood lately), it’s a good start, both in terms of the generational fooferaw that was going on at the time and in terms of the relative merits of this possibly surprising time in our nations musical history. So keep that ice bucket full, pally. We might be back around this way soon.