A collection of a dozen fully packed CDs could seem like overkill for almost any recording artist, and probably will -- at least, for the uninitiated -- where Frank Sinatra is concerned. This is especially true of this release, given that it covers his Columbia recordings, which are usually regarded as his least interesting repertory. But they would be wrong, which becomes clear soon after one buys this set. True, Sinatra's most familiar persona -- that of the Vegas-based swinger -- was still many years away from anything represented by the music here, and the music is very much of its period, a mix of swing and sweet sounds, and pop with an emphasis on the latter and on romantic ballads. But the range of material is still striking, encompassing dance numbers and rhythm songs, jaunty, swinging sounds with more than a touch of serious jazz influence, and even a few numbers in the later sessions that anticipate the development of rock & roll -- and what Sinatra does with it all is amazing. And just to reassure the uninitiated, there are quite a few sides here that are more -- rather than less -- like the Capitol Records repertory that followed in the 1950s. The responsibility for the relative obscurity of Sinatra's 1940s output, and the lack of self-evident appeal of this set lies, ironically enough, with Columbia Records. For most of the first 35 years after he left the label, Columbia let most of his catalog of 285 officially released recordings lie fallow, doing little more across that time than return to the same two-dozen biggest hits. More than 100 of the tracks here never even made it onto vinyl, their last appearances being on 78-rpm shellac discs. So for those who haven't heard the Sinatra of the 1940s, or don't know his work well -- and that's nearly everybody, and everyone under 60 -- this set will prove a sublimely beautiful and overpowering experience. There was a reason why he was known as "the Voice" in those days, and practically every song here provides a vivid reminder.
The first half-dozen discs here will provide modern listeners with all the explanation they'll ever need for the origins of the frenzied "bobby-soxer" fandom that Sinatra elicited in the early and mid-'40s. In those days, his was a profoundly beautiful voice, stunning really, that could overpower women with his intonation on a ballad in seconds; it's also eerie how he always sounds like he is singing directly to the listener, personally. The other half of the equation was that Sinatra was sufficiently macho so that male listeners could identify not only with the persona he presented but also resonate to the effect that the songs had on women; women were aroused by his singing, and he connected with men who appreciated both that effect and the qualities behind it. The harder rhythm numbers worked more generally and more directly on everyone, in a more conventional pop music context. Remastered in state-of-the-art sound -- some of the finest in Columbia Records' history to date on CD -- from original 78-rpm disc sources and lacquer masters in the case of the pre-1948 sides, this set provides a close and intimate look at the source of those reactions. Whether he's working with a choral accompaniment ("Close to You") to avoid the restrictions of the Musicians Union strike, or a string section, or a brassy accompaniment ("Saturday Night"), the singing and the accompaniments get their very best airing to date, and Sinatra's delicate intonation is downright (and literally) intoxicating when heard properly. This is the first time in two generations that audiences can hear 95 percent of the material here, and it is incredibly easy to get seduced by "the Voice." Young or old, male or female, it doesn't matter -- the listener keeps wanting more, which this set obliges in quintuplicate.
The arrangements, mostly by Axel Stordahl (and -- occasionally -- George Siravo), also glisten in all of their glory. The lacquer-mastered songs sound better than you might believe possible, and once you get to the tape masters from 1948 onward, the quality truly soars. The set also provides a close look at an era when songwriting really and truly mattered, and was as great a craft as singing, and Sinatra (who also contributed in that area here and there) -- when he was allowed to pick his repertory -- was one of the best judges of songwriting. The consistency across most of these 285 songs is astounding, even with the relative handful of clunkers here (mostly in the guise of novelty tunes that newly installed Columbia A&R chief Mitch Miller insisted Sinatra try in the last couple of years of his Columbia tenure). But even some of those novelty tunes are revealing of the singer's true range -- "Bim Bam Baby" may not be what one wants from a Sinatra record, but it showed that he could work in a beat-driven context not too far ahead of rock & roll. The set is packaged in a foot-tall wooden box that stands vertically and offers each CD in a separate case of its own, with an accompanying hardcover book. It was out of print as of 2007 but is also easy enough to find used online, and it's a great bargain in terms of what one gets. What's more, it's an essential acquisition, musically more than the equal of the Capitol and Reprise Sinatra collections and -- even more important -- for showcasing his (undeservedly) least-well-known work, and a body of music that is, otherwise, mostly unavailable (the alternative is the 96-song four-CD The Best of the Columbia Years: 1943-1952, which offers the best 35 percent of what's here). It's not an easy thing to recommend a purchase of this size to ordinary listeners, but whatever it takes to save up for it, no real fans of the singer will be disappointed with what they get. ~ Bruce Eder