Like the Concept, Not the Execution
I’ve always been a fan of Frank Sinatra. One of the first albums I ever owned was “Classic Sinatra – His Great Performances from 1953 to 1960.” Those 20 songs encapsulate so much of what is great about Sinatra: timeless voice, great instrumental backing, classic songs.
During college, I worked at a local YMCA that played awful radio music and during the holidays the station changed to Christmas music only. We literally listened to nonstop, Christmas music for 30 days — you try and deadlift to “Do You Hear What I Hear.” (Gentle reminder that this was before mp3 players).
I took over as part-time DJ during my shift to avoid from losing it, and I would occasionally sneak in upbeat Sinatra songs to cater to the “Open to All” mission statement but quickly learned how sensitive people were to music selection.
While I know the greatest hits, I never really deep-dived any of Sinatra’s stuff, so I was excited to learn more about the original albums and stories. “In the Wee Small Hours” is an album from 1955 during a renaissance for Frank Sinatra’s popularity; after hitting a rough patch of poor albums and shows, he hit a second wind and recorded successful albums in the year before with “Songs for Young Lovers” and “Swing Easy!” and had a critically acclaimed lead role in the movie “The Man with the Golden Arm.”
The album was created to be a “concept album” that was supposed to have themes of “loneliness, introspection, lost love, failed relationships, depression and night-life.” There seems to be some thought that the song selections were inspired by Sinatra’s tumultuous relationship with then wife Ava Gardner. The outcome is 16 tracks that have low beats-per-minute, soft instrumental backing, and melancholy undertones.
The only track listing that I recognized was the titular song itself. “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” is the first song and sets the tone for what this album is going to be about. It is an exquisite song comprised of only three stanzas (with one of them repeated) full of raw emotion and memorable lyrics:
“When your lonely heart has learned its lesson,
You’d be hers if only she would call,
In the wee small hours of the morning,
That’s the time you miss her most of all.”
After one listen, this song is ingrained in your memory for it tells a beautiful, albeit lonely story, that we can all relate to. The problem is the rest of the album isn’t memorable like this song.
The other 15 tracks offer very little impact as the opening ballad. While all the songs capture the mood, the lyrics and song writing just aren’t at the the same level. There are a couple songs that rise to the occasion (such as “Glad to Be Unhappy” and “Dancing on the Ceiling”), but there is a huge swath of the album that doesn’t seem to have the spirit that I was hoping for; they check boxes for the right sound and subject but don’t have a composition that moves me.
The album is an instant time transport and as a concept album captures the era and themes remarkably. Looking at the album art with these songs playing in the background made my overactive imagination easily drift to diners at 2:00am with a cigarette and my thoughts as the silent city and street lamp lights suffocate me. This can make the album a worthwhile listen even though I didn’t appreciate many of the individual songs.
I was curious to check out his other albums after listening to this one, and I found that his next album, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!, was exactly what I was looking for from Frank Sinatra. This 1956 classic has several hits (“You Make Me Feel So Young” “It Happened in Monterey,” “Too Marvelous for Words,” “I’ve got your under my skin”) and is more even handed than “In the Wee Small Hours.” While not as avante-garde as a concept album, the songs are memorable, enjoyable and will stick with you long after playing them.
I have nothing against the melancholy tone or subject matter of “In the Wee Small Hours,” I just find the songs forgetful outside out of track one. I believe “Songs for Swinging’ Lovers!” a much better album, even though more shallow in scope.