Wednesday, March 12, 2014

CD Review: Frank Sinatra, "Point of No Return" (1962)

The classic album cover for "Point of No Return," 1962.

After writing last week about Frank Sinatra’s CompleteColumbia Recordings, nearly all of which were arranged by Axel Stordahl, I thought a fitting follow-up would be a review of the only album Stordahl arranged for Sinatra after Sinatra left Columbia, the 1962 Capitol album “Point of No Return.” 

“Point of No Return” was a fitting title, as the album was Sinatra’s last for Capitol Records. Sinatra had signed with Capitol in 1953, and the recordings he made for the label launched his musical comeback and remain some of the best pop vocal recordings ever made. When people today think of Frank Sinatra and his classic songs, chances are they’re thinking of Sinatra during the time he recorded for Capitol. Every album Sinatra recorded for Capitol was excellent, and he had found a perfect musical partner in the arranger Nelson Riddle, who worked on the majority of Sinatra’s Capitol recordings. Sinatra also made great albums with arrangers Gordon Jenkins and Billy May during his Capitol tenure. Albums like “In the Wee Small Hours,” “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!” “A Swingin’ Affair,” “Come Fly with Me,” “Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely,” “Come Dance with Me!” and “Nice ‘n’ Easy” were not only well-received artistic triumphs, they were also big selling albums that made a lot of money for both Sinatra and Capitol. Sinatra’s tenure at Capitol marked the beginning of an amazing stretch from 1954 to 1967 when he landed 29 albums in the Top Ten of the Billboard charts. Why then did Sinatra want to leave Capitol to start his own record company? Sinatra wanted more artistic control, with the eventual goal of having his own subsidiary label within the Capitol family. When the president of Capitol told Sinatra he couldn’t have his own label, Sinatra became determined to leave Capitol. During this period, Sinatra considered buying the jazz label Verve Records from Norman Granz, but Granz sold the company to MGM instead. 

Sinatra was able to work out a deal with Capitol in early 1960 where he would record four more albums for the label, and thus fulfill his contract. The four albums would turn out to be “Nice ‘n’ Easy,” “Sinatra’s Swingin’ Session!!!” “Come Swing with Me,” and “Point of No Return.” What makes Sinatra’s discography confusing during this period is that he began recording for his new label, Reprise, in December of 1960, while he still had two albums left to record for Capitol. By the time “Point of No Return” was issued in March of 1962, four Sinatra albums had already been released on Reprise. In fact, during the period from January, 1961 to March, 1962, 7 full albums of new material by Frank Sinatra were released! This meant that Sinatra began to compete with his own albums, as new Reprise and Capitol albums came out just weeks apart. In fact, in July of 1961, both Capitol and Reprise released Sinatra albums featuring the arrangements of Billy May. The albums were very similarly titled, as the Capitol release was “Come Swing with Me!” and the Reprise release was “Swing Along with Me.” Capitol sued Reprise, claiming that the title of their album was too similar. Capitol won, forcing the Reprise album to be re-christened “Sinatra Swings.” I’m not sure why Capitol allowed Sinatra to issue records on Reprise before he completed his Capitol contract, since it could have been detrimental to the sales of both albums. I also don’t understand why Sinatra didn’t wait until his contract with Capitol was completely fulfilled before he started recording for his own label, but my guess is that Sinatra wasn’t patient enough to wait that long. Commercially, the deluge of new Sinatra product didn’t seem to matter, as 5 of the 7 albums landed in the Top Ten. 

“Point of No Return” is not a classic Sinatra album. It’s still very good, but it doesn’t reach the heights of his best work for Capitol. One reason for that could simply be Sinatra’s annoyance at having to record the album at all. While Sinatra’s other Capitol albums were usually recorded over three or four nights, “Point of No Return” was recorded over just two nights, September 11th and 12th, 1961. And while Sinatra was known to be a meticulous perfectionist in the studio, he was not so discriminating on “Point of No Return.” Sinatra rushed through six songs each night, sometimes refusing to do a second take, even when producer Dave Cavanaugh asked for it. The first time through would have to be good enough for Capitol. But despite Sinatra’s cavalier attitude towards the sessions, the results are still quite good, as it was pretty impossible to make a lackluster Frank Sinatra album in 1961. Musically, the album harkens back to Sinatra’s Columbia years, as it’s filled with romantic ballads. However, the songs and arrangements aren’t as downbeat at they are on other albums of “saloon songs” like “In the Wee Small Hours,” “Only the Lonely,” and “No One Cares.” 

The album cover of “Point of No Return” is a classic. In keeping with many of his Capitol albums, the cover is a drawing of Sinatra. As usual he’s wearing a hat and smoking a cigarette, stopping by a statue in a park at twilight. He’s looking to his left, gazing somewhere off in the distance. 

“Point of No Return” was the last time that Sinatra worked with Axel Stordahl, who sadly passed away from cancer at the age of 50 in August 1963, less than two years after these sessions. Because of this, “Point of No Return” serves as a valedictory not only for the Capitol years, but also Sinatra’s Columbia years, as he leaves his musical past behind to chart a new course. 

Here are some thoughts about the songs on “Point of No Return”:

“When the World Was Young”-Has an interesting song structure, an almost-spoken verse, chorus, then another almost-spoken verse, then another chorus. Sinatra’s singing is exquisite, as is Stordahl’s lush, romantic arrangement. 

“I’ll Remember April”-This is the only time that Sinatra recorded this popular standard. The arrangement is by Heinie Beau, who “ghosted” two of the arrangements for Stordahl, who ran out of time to finish all of the songs. (Beau did the same favor for Billy May on the “Come Swing with Me!” album.) The arrangement is lovely, breathing new life into this song. The strings on this song remind me of Gordon Jenkins’s work.

“September Song”-Sinatra would later re-record this song for 1965’s “September of My Years,” with Gordon Jenkins arranging. It would be easy to make this song too sentimental, but Stordahl and Sinatra avoid that pitfall. 

“A Million Dreams Ago”-A nice change of pace, a more up-tempo song, with some good sax work. A fitting song for the end of his relationship with Stordahl and Capitol, as Sinatra sings, “Goodbye, good luck old friend/I’ll smile and just pretend/there was no end/a million dreams ago.” 

“I’ll See You Again”-Listen to the way Frank draws out the word “sweet” over several measures in the phrase “This sweet memory.” His voice was so amazing. 

“There Will Never be Another You”-I think this is the best song on the album. Great singing and playing, amazing to think it was done in just one take. Sinatra’s phrasing is terrific. 

“Somewhere Along the Way”-Lovely and lush. If Sinatra is annoyed with having to record these songs, you sure can’t tell on this song. 

“It’s a Blue World”-This is the second song on the album that Heinie Beau arranged for Stordahl. It’s a more spritely song than others on the record, and a nice change of pace.

“These Foolish Things”-Sinatra seems to be on autopilot here, as his vocal seems kind of listless. It’s kind of an odd song, as it really is just a list of things-check out Bryan Ferry’s 1973 version for the full lyrics. This isn’t a great arrangement either-the 1945 Columbia version that Sinatra and Stordahl did is much better. This is one of the songs that definitely would have been improved with multiple takes. Also, as Sinatra historians Will Friedwald and Charles Granata point out, the last word of the song, “you,” is edited in, as Sinatra’s voice changes between “remind me of” and “you.” Honestly, it was difficult for me to catch it, but a close listen with headphones confirmed it.

“As Time Goes By”-This just doesn’t do anything for me. Sinatra seems listless here too. Another song that would have improved with a few more takes. 

“I’ll be Seeing You”-Sinatra had recorded this with Sy Oliver in a swinging arrangement for the “I Remember Tommy” album just a few months earlier. This version with Stordahl is done as a ballad. I like Sinatra’s phrasing on the Oliver arrangement more.

“Memories of You”-A fitting closing track. Lovely vocal from Frank and a nice arrangement to close out the album and the Sinatra/Stordahl partnership.

That’s the end of the album, but for the CD release Capitol added the four tracks that Stordahl arranged for Sinatra’s first Capitol session in April 1953. Capitol executives wanted Sinatra to record with other arrangers, but Sinatra insisted that Stordahl be given the opportunity to arrange his first session. After this one Capitol session with Stordahl, Sinatra then worked with Nelson Riddle, and didn’t work with Stordahl again until the 1961 sessions for “Point of No Return.” Thus the CD contains all of Sinatra’s work at Capitol with Stordahl.

“Day In-Day Out”-Sinatra’s first attempt at cutting this song for Capitol. He recorded the song with three different arrangers, as he re-cut it in 1954 with Nelson Riddle, and in 1958 with Billy May. Nice tick-tock strings at the start. This is very similar to Sinatra’s Columbia work-same yearning, sexy tempo and delivery. Excellent version.

“Don’t Make a Beggar of Me”-Decent, but not an outstanding song.

“Lean Baby”-A very silly song, but evidence of the new direction Sinatra was heading on Capitol. Billy May co-wrote the song, and the arrangement pays homage to his trademark saxophone sound. The lyrics are silly as Sinatra sings of his girl: “My lean baby/she’s so slim/a broomstick’s wider/but not as trim.” In 1953 you could still make jokes about how skinny Frank Sinatra was, as his weight was the punchline for every joke told about him in the 1940’s. This is another Heinie Beau arrangement, as Stordahl doesn’t seem to have been able to do swing arrangements. Sinatra sounds more energetic and more swinging than he ever did on Columbia. Matching his vocal with the saxes was a great idea for the beginning of the song. 

“I’m Walking Behind You”-Pure snoozeville, a slow song about some poor dope who’s still stuck on this broad who’s getting hitched to some other fella. This was a number 1 hit for Eddie Fisher, and a number 7 hit for Sinatra. “Lean Baby” was the B-side, and reached #25.

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