Friday, July 01, 2005


Jake Holmes week concludes: Watertown

Having scared off most of the younger crowd with yesterday's post about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, I'll finish the job today. The other 1969 collaboration between Jake Holmes and Bob Gaudio was Frank Sinatra's Watertown. Run for the hills!

Everyone else, have a seat. May I offer you a cucumber sandwich? Tea? Kids these days!

If I were being dramatic, I probably would have posted about Watertown on Wednesday and then finished up with Genuine Imitation Life Gazette. GILG is effusive and catchy and clever and fun, fun, fun (even when the lyrics don't follow the general mood). Watertown is subdued (like its cover art) and "adult" and takes time to grow. It's also really wonderful, and probably a good example of an album that failed because it was inappropriate to its creator's fanbase. Which still surprises me, as it's not that far out by any means. There's only one very short song that pushes the envelope in a way that's apparent 30-something years later: She Says, which is more of an interlude than a real song.

In most other respects Watertown is a subdued slice-of-life record that was meant to accompany a television special (which never happened) centered around the story of a man whose wife leaves him, hints that she might come back, then doesn't. The most detailed discussion of the record I can find is here. As that writer notes, it's slightly difficult to write much about Watertown because it's been almost completely ignored by Sinatra fans and biographers. Apparently it was his worst-selling album and his last to appear on CD. Regarding that: one of the CD versions comes with a good bonus track and isn't expensive, so that's probably what you should look for. Amazon seems to have a decent sized stock of used copies.

Incidentally, the liner notes to that CD are informative, but what especially struck me is that they drop a few tantalizing hints about recordings that someone much better-connected than me might want to try to track down. One would be the demo acetates of the album with Jake Holmes singing, and the other is a version of a song called Elizabeth that Frank Sinatra supposedly recorded as a demo to send to Elizabeth Taylor for her birthday.

Since I didn't grow up with Frank Sinatra, listening to Watertown initially took some mental recalibration. With the exception of people who are specifically "doing Sinatra" (e.g. Neil Hannon) his style of singing is a relic and it takes a few attempts to hear it as a voice rather than a tribute to a voice. Listeners older than me may not have the same problem.

That aside, there's no reason this record shouldn't be more popular, and I'll especially point Divine Comedy fans in its direction. The orchestral parts are never schmaltzy, and continue with GILG's practice of keeping the arrangements spacious. I've read criticism of Sinatra's voice here and there, but I'd guess that unless you're a connoisseur you'll never know what that's about, given the level of technical quality that we accept from singers these days.

There are only ten songs on the album (plus the one bonus track) so I'm only going to post one other. Here's the soaring What's Now Is Now which would probably have been my pick for a single.

Longtime readers know that I'm somewhat prone to conspiracy theories based on flimsy evidence. I don't have a full-blown one, but I've wondered from time to time if Lou Reed might have heard Watertown before composing Berlin. Or if there was some zeitgeist thing going on.

I have no smoking gun, just little things here and there. Both albums have a track called Lady Day (Lady Day was cut from the original Watertown, then restored on the CD reissue). The beginning of Michael & Peter from Watertown sounds ever so slightly like Caroline Says, and both albums have an "x Says" song (or two). Obviously there's the sense that both albums take place in a specific geographic location, and both start with a song about that spot. Both have a song about children who aren't being raised by their mother. Both tell the story of a relationship that's ended before the record begins. I could probably get ingenious and come up with more, but that seems like a good place to stop. Someone with time on their hands might want to do an article comparing and contrasting the two.

She Says by Frank Sinatra
What's Now Is Now by Frank Sinatra

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