The Frank Sinatra boxed sets that have been released since his centennial year have been frustrating exercises in vault-digging. With hundreds of studio releases over his long career, the 20th century performer who was one of the great interpreters of popular song has deep coffers for the intrepid reissue producer to reorganize and perhaps redefine a sprawling canon. Fans of Old Blue Eyes know there are fascinating session materials that have yet to officially see the light of day. Which makes sets like A Voice on Air and London, despite good performances, seem little more than barrel-scraping, offering old fans little that’s surprising or revelatory. There may be only a single surprise on World on a String, the latest box set to come from the Sinatra vaults. But that one performance is reminder that Sinatra could really sing the shit out of an old standard when he put his mind to it.

World on a String consists of four discs (a DVD included with the set was not available for preview) which document Sinatra’s appearances on international stages during the mature part of his career. This is already a more promising set-up than A Voice on Air, limited by radio years which for the most part mark a singer who had not yet reached his peak.

Most of the first disc comes from an oft-bootlegged 1958 performance in Monte Carlo. Sinatra was at the top of his game in this era, and it’s like hearing a live performance of what was then his latest album, Come Fly with Me. It’s a good concert, but the best (and perhaps worst) of this collection is still to come. Disc one ends with a 1953 performance at the RAI Radio Club in Italy. Like the rest of World on a String, this performance is presented in its entirety, which means that in addition to the music you get to hear sometimes interminable announcements – for this concert, in Italian. For the sake of completion, the compilers have gone so far as to include a performance by Italian singer Domenico Modugno (who later became a member of the Italian Parliament). It’s enough to make you just skip over the rest of the disc. But, perhaps inspired by hearing a singer from his ancestral home, Sinatra follows Modugno’s performance of the inconsequential “Ninna Nanna” with a gorgeous rendition of “Night and Day.”

It’s a song Sinatra performed throughout his career, from a sweetly crooning take in 1942 to a swinging up-tempo arrangement by Nelson Riddle from 1956 to an unusually dramatic interpretation conducted by Don Costa in 1962. This version is like no other Sinatra recorded; his voice is just about to reach its full bloom, and as he bids farewell to his once-boyish timbre there’s a wistfulness that seems as if it could only emerge from an artist at a particular age on the cusp of maturity yet still with a memory of innocence. His greatest commercial success still ahead of him, he’s a man who has not yet been hardened by the years of hard living ahead. And, as he does nowhere else on this set, he hits it out of the park.

It’s enough to impress even someone who has heard a lot of Sinatra. Of course, a four-disc set doesn’t live and die on a single track. There are no other revelations on the set, but the rest of it finds Sinatra in good form, even in the ‘80s, by which time his voice was getting increasingly frayed. Yet the 1982 concert in the Dominican Republic, despite the uninspired Beatles cover “Something,” wisely keeps to mid-tempo ballads like “Come Rain or Come Shine” that don’t force Sinatra to strain for notes he can no longer reach. His live “New York New York” isn’t as strong as the studio version from the time; but what is? Released in time to make your Christmas wish lists, World on a String seems like little more than quickly-thrown together product. The fact that there is still room to be impressed by a musician with one of the largest catalogs in popular music is a testament to Sinatra’s perennial appeal. All the more reason for record labels to treat this body of work with more care, and a more thoughtful reissue program.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Fire Music

It’s a no-brainer for anybody who listens to experimental music. But the film’s success is…