To those non-fanatics who don't feel the need to delve into every nook and cranny, but who want more than just the deservedly overplayed oldies, the new four-disc Jersey Beat: The Music of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons (Rhino) is arguably the best package to date for this much-anthologized group. All the hits – from 1962's "Sherry" and "Big Girls Don't Cry" through to '75's "Who Loves You" and "December, 1963 (Oh, What A Night)" – are included alongside Frankie's solo faves. And unlike some of the recent Collector's Choice Music two–fers, you don't get stuck listening to a lotta supper club filler like the whole of On Stage with the Four Seasons. Most of the set's extra material, the album tracks and single also-rans, is arguably as strong as the group's mighty run of hit singles.
As with the recent barrage of CCM reissues, the reason behind the release of this spiffy slab of Jersey goodness is obvious: the success of the Tony Award winning musical Jersey Boys, a show mentioned so often in the final season of The Sopranos that it practically became a running gag. Three of the discs are devoted to a chronological overview of the band's history – opening with break-out single "Sherry" to the boys' last gasp "Hope And Glory" – while the fourth is a DVD containing early TV appearances and seventies era music vids.
To my ears, the strongest of the three audio discs is the second, which opens with 1966's "Working My Way Back to You" and works its way through most of Genuine Imitation Life Gazette's better tracks, though I personally could do without some of Valli's solo material from this time. Sure, it was practically mandatory in the sixties for every male pop singer to have at least one big sing-yer-heart-out Statement of Purpose song in their repertoire – but did it have to be as icky as "To Give (The Reason I Live)"? Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes off You" remains an inarguably great track, though, even when it's not being petshopishly paired with "Where the Streets Have No Name."
Still, the late sixties Seasons produced some enjoyably quirky stuff, some of which was new to me with this set. The '68 single "Electric Stories," with its rollicking guitar fuzz and sugar-free bubble gum lyrics, is one high point, as is the kinda/sorta/psychedelic "Watch the Flowers Grow." I'm also fond of the over-the-top falsetto covers that the boys did as the Wonder Who? – and while "Don't Think Twice (It's All Right)" has long been a staple in Four Seasons collections, it's also fun to hear their equally goofy take on "Lonesome Road." This is the kinda cool musical marginalia that pure "Greatest Hits" collections just don't give ya.
The DVD also has its moments: a '63 performance from The Steve Allen Show done in front of a studio orchestra where we get to hear Frankie blow the lyrics to "Big Girls Don't Cry;" a '64 medley of five then-current hits capped by a finger-snappin' rendition of Frank Loesser's "Brotherhood of Man" (well, I suppose we couldn't ignore the On Stage material altogether); a Valli solo performance from The Bitter End, showing our man crooning "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" to an audience of adoring young Hollywood extras and a performance from a 1968 Kraft Music Hall of "Saturday's Father," which combines on-stage performance with hokey filmed footage of a divorced dad taking his little girl out for the weekend.
That last provides a telling clue as to why the Seasons' late sixties attempts at keeping up with the Beatles were doomed to fail with the teen pop audience. If Imitation Life Gazette was the band's attempt at producing their own Sgt. Pepper, than "Father" was that album's answer to "She's Leaving Home." But where "Home" struck the sixties zeitgeist by focusing on a young girl running off because her parents don't understand her, "Father" asks us to empathize with the parent. In terms of pop hit-making, Frankie and the boys had stepped firmly on the wrong side of the generation gap.
The final tracks on the set's DVD are three promo films produced in the seventies to sell the band's disco hits: fairly uninteresting visually, though the outfits are all amusingly awful. (Funny how the suit-&-tie look of the early performances holds up so much better than the leisure suits worn in their L.A. Coliseum gig.) In later years, Valli was no longer as capable of reaching the falsetto heights that he once could climb, but he still remained an ace pop crooner. A hit like "December 1963" may've hinged on its boomer audience's nostalgic impulses, but it still remained rooted in some damn fine singin' – not to mention, that irreducible Jersey Beat.