Sunday, February 15, 2015

Defying Expectations: Sinatra’s “Watertown”, Nilsson Schmilsson and Billy Meshel's Minor Masterpiece

 It finally happened. Either a sign of advancing good taste or advance of age, I can’t tell which. It hit me – Sinatra. Not in some crazy obsessive way. Call it a general appreciation that didn’t quite exist before. Now, I’m not into the whole Myth / Mystique / Idealization trip here. Just an ability to enjoy Sinatra’s music and an acknowledgment of his artistry. I’d read little articles here and there – some by Sinatra experts. Interesting stories from a musical point of view, not from the “Rat Pack Fanboy Club” point of view. For many of my generation, the Sinatra image was not especially interesting, in terms of what was considered “cool”. Maybe some of the blame can be laid on comedian Joe Piscopo’s doorstep. Somehow I could never take Sinatra seriously - especially after the way Piscopo sent him up on Saturday Night Live. All those songs with mundane lyrics being crooned like they were the most important and profound poetry – with that mock-seriousness in his voice - good God, it really was just too funny. 
  Yet, if you give yourself the chance to listen beyond the mind-numbing, drool-inducing lyrics you’ll hear PHRASING. That’s what got me to listen a little closer. I like singers who know how to phrase through interesting melodic material. And, even with the limitations of his range, Sinatra was a phrasing magician. That said, I would be very hesitant to call his style “jazz”. Advanced crooning with a unique swing feel, perhaps. A stylist, surely. Plus, it’s fairly easy to pick up Sinatra records in thrift store bins. Like classical music these days, only the die-hard collectors want Sinatra LPs. The main concern for collectors centers around his Capitol-era output. Something to do with the original vinyl being the only place to get the “dry” mixes – later reissues were smothered in reverb apparently. And don’t get me started on the “D” versus the “N” pressings. I can’t remember which is the better one right now. I have examples of each and I’m still working on figuring that stuff out. But the collectors know. What they usually don’t care about are the Reprise-era albums.

I have a bunch of these too – actually I kinda like the oddball stuff like Frank’s version of “Both Sides Now” on this record:
  By this point in his career, Sinatra miraculously had some pretty decent comebacks and he wasn’t quite done. The “Cycles” LP was released in 1968. His next big smasheroo, “My Way”, was right around the corner in 1969. Yet, as iconic as “My Way” is today, this is where Sinatra’s hits would start to dry up (“New York, New York” notwithstanding). His recorded output would start to taper off and head for that long slide towards the “Duets” albums that would pretty much cap his career, for better or worse. The Reprise era did, however, have a few interesting experiments along the way, the first – and arguably greatest – of which was unleashed on the public only a year after “My Way” topped the charts. Yet, this LP would sink like a stone and make nary a ripple in either the Sinatra-obsessives circles or everybody else’s circles. I speak of: WATERTOWN.
  I’d read a little about this album over the last few years and a bunch of months ago I finally found a nice white-label promo copy – in mint shape – for about $10. I reckon it is available on CD and/or download for the digital-inclined. Now, this is very important: don’t read the article I’m going to link here until you listen to the record! It’s not a very long album and it’s rewarding so just suck up that 40-some odd minutes and do it.

Sinatra’s “Watertown” may very well end up as the record music fans will celebrate with his hits, long after the Rat Pack fanboy brigade has left the building. The artistry he displays in reading through the material, as a believable sonic narrative, is impeccable. “Watertown” really stands apart from the usual Sinatra offering. Perhaps that is why it remained largely ignored when it was released. Folks probably didn’t know what to make of it and most likely just shrugged it off. Silly people……….for once Sinatra sounds to me like he’s sincere, like he’s not purposely trying to hustle you about how great he is – you know that kind of rap.

I have this theory about singers. For whatever reason, I especially enjoy singers who approach their material almost as actors / actresses. I want the illusion that the singer is communicating something from a point of experience. I say “illusion” because, as in acting, it really isn’t necessary for the artist to have personally experienced whatever they are singing about as long as they are able to communicate the emotion, idea or sentiment. I do wonder, though, if most people really care about whether or not singers portray their material in such a way anymore. Given the way a lot of current music sounds to me, I think not. To my ears, so much of current music / singing sounds like a commercial on TV – like the singer is trying to hustle me. Big turnoff. Not being a vocalist myself, I generally admire anybody who can carry a tune, though. 

  One of the better vocalists of the late 20th century, in terms of American-styled popular music, was Harry Nilsson. I mentioned in an earlier posting about the RCA Albums Collection Box I picked up (along with the most recent biography). Maybe not everybody needs the whole catalog, but I'd say at least one Harry record belongs in any music fan's collection: Nilsson Schmilsson. 
  This record has it all: great singing, great playing, great songwriting. The Moonbeam Song. Coconut. Without You. Jump Into the Fire. Man, if you can’t dig this record I feel sorry for you! Jump into the Fire also happens to have one of the top five BADDEST bass guitar moments ever in the history of recorded music: bass man Herbie Flowers got the wild idea to de-tune his bass right in the middle of an already rockin’ performance – still on-key but all growlin’ and flappin’ and totally rockin’! Herbie don’t need no 5 string bass to get those low, low notes. Just start unwinding that low E RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE TAKE. How badass is that? If that track doesn’t make you want to jump up and play “air bass” you must not have a pulse. Anyway……depending on how much you like brilliant songwriting and stellar singing, you might not need the new box, but you definitely need Nilsson Schmilsson because you like the good things in life. Maybe throw in Son of Schmilsson (the sequel) since you like to laugh too. 
  Yet, these Nilsson albums are a bit different from what came before in Harry’s catalog. The Schmilsson records were a carefully designed move toward more rock-n-roll territory. The clutch of records that preceded these were more in the adult-pop, thinking-man’s music vein with a little touch of 1920s aesthetic to them. And those early albums were successful enough for other aspiring songwriters and singers to take notice. Who wouldn't want to have this guy's talent, right? See here:

 One little known example of Nilsson's impact on music (from pretty early on) came to me in a fairly random way………
Once in awhile I end up with records I didn’t intend to buy. Such was the case when I saw a few Ahmad Jamal records advertised with a “lot” of LPs on an ebay auction. It was like 6 or 7 LPs for $5 or something (including the Jamal albums). I didn’t think too much about the other records that arrived. Among the mystery albums was this:
  I honestly didn’t take much time to even look at this record until a few weeks ago. I noticed it was sealed and looked like some middle-of-the-road, crooning Ed Ames type LP until I looked a little closer………….

First of all, the record label – Probe – was a short-lived offshoot from ABC Records in the late 60s. This label is noteworthy for being the American company that released the first few Soft Machine records in the US. Soft Machine was a decidedly prog-rock / psychedelic band from England. Hmmmm. This album also looked like it was a “concept” album – especially obvious when perusing the song titles………
  Oh my God…..the front cover photo, the song titles, the back cover liner notes……read this:

Even before I placed the needle in the groove I was snickering to myself. This was one of the funniest things I’d seen in a long time: a “concept” album about a lonely guy who just can’t make it with the chicks! Everything about the package is screaming this concept. Who is this guy? How did he get away with it? Who would give him a budget to complete such a project, let alone release it? It is interesting to note that the very goofy liner notes on the back cover make specific reference to Frank Sinatra (and presumably the current hit “My Way”).

Apparently, Billy Meshel cut a few singles under his own name in the early 60s and worked as an erstwhile songwriter for smaller companies. (This song isn't bad – though some of the comments listed on the youtube site are, shall we say, concerning!)
  I get the sense that he must have worked for ABC records in some other capacity besides “singer” and through those connections managed to wrangle a deal for his “concept album”. Although the liner notes make reference to Sinatra, the real inspiration behind this record seems to be Nilsson who was pioneering a new “sensitive loner singer” approach to popular music. However, where Harry's tunes betray sophisticated command of language and finesse, Meshel's lyrics are, by contrast, direct and absurd! Yet, despite the lowbrow vocal delivery, the songs are well-orchestrated and inexplicably catchy! Meshel certainly had a gift. At least one other person has taken notice of this album and uploaded a few tracks to youtube. Here's one:
  This is certainly one of the oddest “concept albums” I've encountered. What makes it so offbeat is the earnestness with which the material is presented – the music itself is very radio-friendly (for the era). It's the extreme point of view of the concept and the ham-fisted lyrics that skew the proceedings toward decidedly “cult status” territory. Fans of late 60s “sunshine pop” would find this record FASCINATING. And, in its own twisted way, it's really very funny! A “quirky classic” that has been gurgling under the radar all these years. I actually like it better than the Four Season's “Imitation Life Gazette” (their “concept album”). So, for those of you who think you've heard it all – if you see Billy Meshel's minor masterpiece lurking in the bins for $1 – it ought to keep you scratching your head and tapping your toes between guffaws. If there ever was an album that probably wasn't supposed to happen, but did anyway – this is IT! Somehow, I'm glad it did and wound up in my collection. It shows a dogged resolve in an industry which seldom rewards such tenaciousness. Maybe these days its too easy to put one's own “minor masterpiece” out into the public arena. Billy Meshel's album was a leap of faith. Perhaps not a lucrative one, but certainly impressive enough in its own inimitable fashion. Regardless of what it may have been like to work for the guy and whatever you might think of the music, he wasn't “phoning it in” here. Isn't that what we, as demanding listeners, ask for?

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