Bobby Darin was an underrated genius. That statement, as true as it is, is practically the only information given in the liner notes for the latest Bobby Darin compilation, Aces Back to Back. The liner notes do not discuss where the songs on this collection come from, or their historical relevance, or even attempt to explain that Aces Back to Back is a rarities collection and not a "best of" as the title suggests. Instead, we get producer Joel Dorn and Darin archivist Jimmy Scalia showering Darin with praises, an essay by the late Doc Pomus about Darin's kindness to a dying little girl, and a litany of praises culled from artists such as Neil Young and Roger McGuinn. The bonus DVD included in the set offers only a little more information about the artist, and even less historical context. It consists of musical numbers from The Bobby Darin Show, awkwardly segued, and unenlightening fragments of a documentary Darin was apparently compiling about himself. Aces Back to Back, in short, is one of the most confounding archival releases of the year, and one of the least listener-friendly. If I hadn't been fortunate enough to receive some additional promotional material with the CD, I would not have a clue about where this music came from, and even less of an idea about who Bobby Darin was.
It may seem lazy to focus one's complaints on packaging and liner notes, but the irregularities in the compilation's packaging accurately reflect the haphazard nature of this collection. As the late Bobby Darin returns to the public eye, thanks in no small part to the upcoming biopic starring Kevin Spacey, his legacy is ripe for a critical re-evaluation. Often dismissed as a Las Vegas phony, Bobby Darin was one of the first true genre leapers, matched only by Ray Charles in his willingness to perform in what seemed to be radically different music styles. Darin, who began his career as a teen idol with the fluffy "Splish Splash", could have easily become a rock legend on the basis of his surprisingly moving "Dream Lover". Instead, he dropped right into a show-biz, swing persona, and had crossover hits with "Beyond the Sea" and his definitive take on "Mack the Knife". Towards the end of his career, he would confound his audience by shifting between his lucrative pop career and an attempt to establish himself in the folk-rock community. Darin's career, in all of its twists and turns, has never been fully represented on an album, and the compilers of Aces Back to Back, with support from the Bobby Darin Estate, had a golden opportunity to produce a definitive collection, regardless of whether they had chosen his "hits" or rarer material.
Unfortunately, the compilers have simply ransacked the Darin archives and decided to release whatever they found to be particularly interesting, not what would best fully represent Darin's short but wide-reaching musical career. The first seven tracks are the songs from The Bobby Darin Show that grace the bonus DVD, and consist of a hammier-than-usual Darin singing popular songs with a full orchestra and a chorus of back-up singers. These do little to change the popular misconception of Darin as a middle-of-the-road showman, particularly when he deconstructs his own "Beyond the Sea" and transforms it into an extended, insufferable comic riff. These tracks work the best when Darin is at his subtlest, especially when Darin manages to transform the kitsch classics "Song Sung Blue" and "Alone Again Naturally" into haunting, depressing odes. When he and his band tone down the volume, one can see the folk singer behind the show-biz mask.
The songs from Darin's folk period might be the heart of Aces Back to Back. Although his folk material was never taken seriously by those who knew him for his Las Vegas gigs, Darin actually was a remarkable interpreter whose explorations into the indifferent folk scene were labors of love. Darin's soft and affecting versions of Bob Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" and Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter" are miles away from the big band extravaganzas like "This Could Be the Start of Something Big".
After the folk material, the collection falls apart into a slapdash mess of rare, but currently unavailable, Darin tracks that make little impression. Only the stripped down version of "Dream Lover", which comes across like a premonition of his folk career, makes any sort of impression amongst understandably forgotten tracks such as "Jive" and "Up a Lazy River". At the album's nadir, the listener is treated for to minute-long fragments of long classic standards recorded for commercial spots for the American Dairy Association. (This also raises the question that if so much of Darin's discography remains hard-to-find and out-of-print, why does this collection lean heavily on music from variety shows and milk commercials?) Following an inferior live version of "Mack the Knife", the presence of which is honestly explained on the DVD: "Because you've got to have 'Mack the Knife'", the collection ends with the "clever" selection, "The Curtain Falls". By this point, any attempts by the listener to try to piece together these leftovers into a coherent portrait of a musical giant have been entirely dashed.
I realize that I have made no attempt to try to tie together my opinions of these songs into a coherent argument, but if the compilers have failed to make a coherent statement, what hope do I have in making a coherent analysis? Darin was such a musical genius that even his minor work has its pleasures, but the compilers seem to work hard at making the collection as difficult as possible to sort out these minor gems. Darin's legacy deserves better than this treatment. They claim that this is Aces Back to Back, but even one listen proves that they are only bluffing.