Saturday, May 9, 2009

English as a Second Language

Rhino recently re-released Sammy Davis, Jr.'s All Star Spectacular as a download-only album, and in ways, the album's riveting. The album has the fingerprints of 1962 all over it to such a degree that it might as well have been recorded in a foreign language. Davis explains on the first track that on the album, he's doing impressions while singing the hits of the day, and he does so talking about his "swinging" association with Reprise Records, and how the project is "kind of a gas." His sincere bourgeois hipster tone is almost incomprehensibly unironic, giving the track a strangely mysterious quality even though I know all the words.

The project itself is strange, but its re-release is stranger because many of the songs have since joined history's parade of also-rans, and the people he's impersonating have no presence in the culture in 2009 - Frankie Laine, Vaughn Monroe, Al Hibbler and Mario Lanza to name a few. Songs you don't know as sing by Davis impersonating people you don't recall are fascinating and strange, but whatever frisson he thought he was creating at the time is utterly lost today. I'm entertained by it as an artifact of a show biz that was crushed by a meteor years ago, but I know that's not the album Davis made.

That, though, is what was once side one of the album. Side two is Davis without concept, simply singing cool, swinging songs with a band neither as to the point as any Sinatra would use nor as florid as any that appealed to Dean Martin and the results suggest that while accounts of Davis' impersonation skills may have been overrated, his talent as a singer weren't.

Such an odd project makes me wish Rhino would re-release more of Davis' albums because greatest hits collections and box sets show off his talent, but if the other albums have the eccentricity of All Star Spectacular, then it may be that his year-in, year-our recorded output is in its way as much a diary of his own issues and insecurities as any confessional indie rocker or singer-songwriter.

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