Album of the Week: Watertown



Just received: a deluxe reissue of Frank Sinatra's gorgeous and affecting 1970 Reprise concept album Watertown -- an immaculately recorded and ambitious song cycle created by composer / producer Bob Gaudio (probably best known as the writer of such Four Seasons hits as "Big Girls Don't Cry," also Frank Valli's "December 1963 (Oh What a Night)," and lyricist Jake Holmes (for years NYC's undisputed King of the Jingles, probably best known to music fans as the actual writer of Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused"). 

Other heavyweights involved in the project include arranger / conductors Joe Scott (Bobby Bland's right hand man) and Charlie Callello (never better than on Laura Nyro's Eli and the Thirteenth Confession), and stellar instrumentalists including trombonists Jimmy Knepper and Urbie Green, pianist Dick Hyman, guitarist Jay Berliner, and bassist Richard Davis.

The album was greeted in 1970 with a fair degree of incomprehension from music critics and fans alike, stalling at #101 on the Billboard Album Charts, faring better in the UK where it made #14, but sales overall were disappointing, a proposed tv special based on the album was shelved, and Frank went into semi-retirement for awhile.

For years though, among discerning music fans / pop cognoscenti, this album has achieved the status of “unfairly overlooked masterpiece” -- and quite rightly so.

Now Frank kind of invented the "concept album," at least thematically on such opuses as Songs for Swingin’ LoversIn the Wee Small Hours, and Only the Lonely. In fact, Sinatra biographer Will Friedwald argues the case going back to Frank's first ever album waxing, 1946"s The Voice of Frank Sinatra :

"He sequenced the songs so that the lyrics created a flow from track to track, affording an impression of a narrative, as in musical comedy or opera. He was the first pop singer to bring a consciously artistic attitude to recording."

Re Watertown: if you're a fan of Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds, Van Dyke Parks's Song Cycle, Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, and / or Scott Walker's Scott 3 -- swooning orchestral works utilizing contemporary rock and jazz instrumentation with emotionally freighted lyrics -- this one more than bears a passing resemblance, certainly deserves extremely close scrutiny, and could very well be for you.

Here Jake Holmes lyrically delineates a dark, moody, Adult tale dealing with mature themes, concerning the break-up of the marriage of a middle-aged man -- an Everyman whose wife has split for NYC to further her artistic career, abandoning both him and their two sons. And the album deals with this lonely working guy's square-jawed, strong-shouldered attempt to keep it all together and raise the kids in Watertown NY (a/k/a Dullsville -- and not that far from where I grew up, in Syracuse) -- while pining for his lost wife, coping with depression, writing her endless (and later revealed to be never sent) letters, ready to welcome her back with open arms, except that she's never coming back.

In fact (reading between the lines), she might well be dead.

Not exactly Come Fly with Me territory. 

But a bold artistic move by a true legend / force of nature…who really, at the point of recording this album, certainly had nothing more to prove to anybody. He was fucking Frank Sinatra!

I mentioned Pet Sounds and Song Cycle, and in fact the opening anthem "Watertown" (my favorite track on the album) closes with the sound of a train chugging off into the distance, panning across your stereo speakers. A NYC twist on Californian pop-meister Van Dyke Parks's "The All Golden," where the sound of a  train arriving closes the song. And also Brian Wilson's "Caroline, No," which ends with the sound of a train streaming past a crossing with Brian's dogs Banana and Louie nipping at the heels of the caboose.

"Watertown" the song is (heheh) freighted with musical and lyrical goodies like that, including an opening electric bass obligato that quotes the opening melody line of Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen's "Love and Marriage," which Frank famously first recorded in 1956. 

He'd first introduced his version to the public the year before in a televised production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town -- another "little town blues" saga, to quote from Frank's 1980 comeback hit "New York New York" -- and the song had first appeared on his 1956 album This is Frank Sinatra!, arranged by the great Nelson Riddle. Frank later re-recorded it again with Nelson Riddle for A Man and His Music in 1965.

I don't want to reveal too much more about this haunting album, except that it's expertly sung by Old Blue Eyes, who navigates the extravagant arrangements with aplomb and wrings all the changes necessary to deliver the maximum impact emotionally, which is just devastating.

Those of you bored with the current music scene should definitely seek this way-ahead-of-its-time album out. 

Order the album here: Watertown.

Add new comment