Wednesday, January 24, 2007
Frank Sinatra, for all of his greatness, could never be completely convincing singing pop songs in the sixties. He can't hide his contempt of the material that he layed down on albums like That's Life, My Way and Strangers In The Night, and these album's worst moments are the most shallow items in the great mans catalogue. Dean Martin, on the other hand, could sing any song in any genre and give it a warmth and relaxed reading that Sinatra could never match.
Dean Martin's reprise catalogue in the sixties is one of the most underrated in all of popular music. Time has buried just how popular these records were and listening to them now we are able to hear some of the most revitalizing music of the period. Dean, like Elvis, could sing anything and make it a Dean Martin song. Give him a Jimmy Webb song like By The time I Get To Phoenix and he'll nail it, King Of The Road and he'll make it seem like he is singing his autobiography. He could inject the most tragic songs with hope and add an elation to happier tunes that no one could match.
Choosing a favorite Dino album from the Reprise period is near impossible, from the sublime Dream With Dean to the nostalgic Once In A While we are given hundreds of quality performances by a man whose reputation would tell you that he didn't give a damn, we know now that Dean Martin was a lot more complicated than people could have ever imagined.
Houston would be an important album in any one's oeuvre for just two tracks alone, the stunning pair of singles in the title track and I Will, but add on ten more country rock infused classics and you've got a masterpiece.
The Lee Hazelwood penned opening title track is one of the sixties great moments with Dean giving one of his all-time great performances. Never has a man at the end of his rope sounded so defiantly relaxed. He knocks Hazelwood's ultimate ode to a loner trying to get home completely out of the park and by the time Sun legend Billy Lee Riley comes in on the harmonica we already have one of the great singles of the sixties.
Side one's brassy energetic feel is laced with sweet remembrances of love and it ends on the lovely Down Home which returns us to the loner of the title track. The album's underlying story is that of a man who stepped out just a little too much but can still get salvation, if he can just get home. Get back to where you belong indeed.
Side Two opens with the legendary I Will, one of Dino's biggest hits, and its wonderfully mournful string section gives side two a different feel. I defy anyone to not be moved when Dean sings, "I don't want to be the one who loves you babe but I will". It's a heartfelt performance that does the deceptively simple thing of making you believe him.
Side Two is, over all, a little more mellow and lush than the first but by the time Dean's character is thrown into jail in the great Detour we realize that the loner from Side one is still with us. The album closes with You're The Reason I'm In Love and we have are character resolving to perhaps finally stay but not without reservations, when Dean sings "Some may doubt that I believe" he seems to be answering not only his critics but also a generation that never gave him enough credit.
Houston also features one of the great sleeve designs, this is why LPs were made, from the terrific montage of photos on the front to the hilarious back comparing Dean to the city of Houston.
Dean Martin remains one of the most underrated and under-appreciated performers in popular music. His place in rock history is particularly in need of attention as he is the connecting point between Bing Crosby's revolutionizing the art of singing to the emergence of Elvis Presley. Had he come to prominence just one or two decades later he would have been one of the great rock icons. His complex relaxed style can be seen in everyone from Bryan Ferry to Jarvis Cocker. For a man who supposedly didn't give a damn, I'd say he did more than just all right.