In the Wee Small Hours / Frank Sintara

In The Wee Small Hours, by Frank Sinatra

Revolutionary, because it is considered by many to be the first concept album, a cohesive collection that flows together like a novel or a movie. It, along with technology, is the reason "albums" have been, for the last half-century or so, the dominant form in which music is delivered and consumed, and the mark of pop music as "art", not just commerce. 

Frank did this intentionally, and had apparently been contemplating it for some time. Consider, though, the timing: Ava Gardner had done stomped on his heart and messed him up good. Like Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan, previously mentioned, Sinatra took this pain and used it as the fulcrum to craft a pop music classic. 

It is a collection of ballads, all meditations on the solitude with which heartbreak must be met, and, as the title suggests, late-night melancholia, reflection on love lost. 

Frank's voice is effortless, an instrument of exquisite, almost beatific, expression, bringing every word into clear and newly-kindled focus. Always in control (no free-range cries of anguish here), always gently revealing the emotional wallop through raw and elegant lyricism. The title cut is vintage Sinatr, his phrasing (and his famous breath control) conveying loss, deeply felt and resigned. He realizes what he's lost, and the loss brings into focus the staggering ecstasy, though both joy and despair, of being alive. 

Nelson Riddle's arrangements are lush, and have a subtle, graceful swing. The strings don't just underscore, they  breathe, and the sparse ensemble work brings a focus to the message that avoids saloon song cliche. It is a beautifully understated score, jumping out only when necessary, no gratuitous flurries that communicate mere sentimentality rather than true emotion. His take on Ellington's "Mood Indigo", for instance, is a satiny bed of low-register strings, fluid but insistent, that periodically gives way to a slightly more swinging rhythm section, before seamlessly retaking the lead. And never once losing resonance with the lyric. 

Good scotch and a smoke are optional. But highly recommended.

Ava must have been a helluva gal. 



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