Still going strong past his retirement age, Tony Bennett is one of those crooners who have not suffered from the simple fact of being a crooner. Nor has he been punished with the tendency of most classic pop singers for being dated or rehashing old songs time and again. With his recent duet album featuring Sheryl Crow and k.d. lang among others, Bennett has established himself more as a contemporary legend than "has been". But in order to have current pop and rock flock of stars doing duets with him, his back catalog of hits must have had something to do with. This two-disc set is perhaps the best collection of his songs aside from a complete boxset or anthology.
Starting from his earliest days recording back in 1951, the collection begins with "Because of You" and the Hank Williams cover of "Cold, Cold Heart". "Because of You" has Bennett still learning his vocal ropes but sounds confident he can do it. Unfortunately, the choice of Hank Williams is a rather mixed recording at best. Although he does a credible job at trying to incorporate the track into a pop orchestration, it's bland and seems to be an early miscue. To think that Hank Williams was still alive when Bennett recorded his version gives you an idea of the timeline presented here. Both singles reached Number One on the charts, but it's not proof of a great song. Thankfully, tracks like "Blue Velvet" and "Rags to Riches" hint at the talent that was to evolve. Produced by Mitch Miller, both numbers have a big band sound and brass section, but "Rags to Riches" is a bit more adventurous in its structure.
"Sing You Sinners" is perhaps the first hint of the charisma that would enthrall audiences. Bennett delivers a performance that is one of his early highlights over a large band sound. "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams" has a Mexican Mariachi feeling to it and, while sounding somewhat odd, manages to improve the song as it goes along. The early songs on the disc have a certain distant sound to them, but perhaps it's because they are mono recordings. "It Amazes Me" is another track that is one of his shining moments despite not hitting the charts or being released as a single. The string section here is another strong asset to the tune. The jazz style on "Firefly", although relatively short, is Bennett at his best. Working with the Count Basie Orchestra, the song is full of energy and intensity, which compensates for its brief length. "The Best Is Yet to Come" is another track in a similar vein, although it sounds like Bennett is losing his breath near its climax.
The '60s were also relatively kind to Bennett, including the dramatic "Once Upon a Time". Most of these songs you can also picture New York in them, whether it's a sunny walk through Central Park or a rainy afternoon in Manhattan. It's as if the songs here are screaming for more placements on romantic soundtracks. "The Good Life" is another in a long line of similar sounding, similarly delivered tracks. But none of them sound stale or routine. The first disc closes with the previously unreleased but pretty "The Rules of the Road". Recorded in 1964 with the Ralph Sharon Trio, the track harks back to "Once Upon a Time", but is a bit sparser, allowing Bennett to give a memorable performance.
The second disc begins with "Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)" and follows along the lines of classical orchestrated pop songs. And although none of these tracks hit Number One, they only add to the singer's overall luster and body of work. But the greatest track here would have to be "Fly Me to the Moon (In Other Words)". Full of romantic longing and the first trace of female harmonies with the Ralph Wilson Chorus, the song seems to be the signature song Bennett has performed countless times in countless places. "The Very Thought of You" touches more jazz-oriented buttons, especially the horn solos sprinkled throughout. And being one of the longest tracks here, it is full developed and has room to flourish. A more melancholic effort is "Yesterday I Heard the Rain (Esta Tarde Vi Llover)", which is also quite stellar.
If there is one problem with the songs, it's the fact too often you're hard pressed to define something unique or outstanding that separates some tracks from others. The arrangements and performances are excellent, but only a few tracks have certain verve to them. "My Favorite Things" has a jazz swing to it in the style of Bobby Darin circa "Mack the Knife", but it also has touches of a xylophone. "Night and Day" also has a similar tone to it. Although there is a 16-year gap in recordings here between 1970's "I Do Not Know a Day I Did Not Love You" and 1986's "How Do You Keep the Music Playing", there isn't much of a drop in the quality. Sounding a tad raspier on the latter track, it doesn't deter Bennett from nailing one of the record's lengthy and captivating solos.
The final tracks return to Bennett's glory days in terms of popularity and star value. "Steppin' Out with My Baby" starts off slow before kicking in to a swinging jazz jive that doesn't stop. With his vocals mixed well with the instruments, it sounds like he's singing from a distant, but it all fits perfectly. A rousing "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" shows more drummer Clayton Cameron's abilities than anything from Bennett. Closing with a duet with k.d.lang in "Keep the Faith Baby", the disc has all the angles covered. While the sun is setting on his career, this collection is a star.