(Part One of this review considered Collector’s Choice Music’s recent CD reissue of six Four Seasons albums from the 1960’s. This half looks at the boys through their disco resurrection and post-hits era.)
The Seventies And Beyond
If Genuine Imitation Life Gazette was the Four Seasons' failed attempt at garnering hip cred, follow-up Half & Half (1970) can perhaps be seen at the core Seasons' swansong. (Founding members Tommy DeVito & Bob Gaudio both retired from live performing before the release of 1972's Chameleon, the group's sole Motown release.) Per the title, the album is only half a Four Seasons record. Alternating group tracks with cuts designed to build from lead singer Valli's '67 solo success with "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," it pretty much lives up to its billing as a sporadically satisfying record: half pop and half schlock. Though it's tempting to draw a thick line of demarcation 'tween the Seasons songs and the Valli songs (especially when listening to an egregious bit of "inspirational" hokum like Valli's "To Make My Father Proud"), the fact is both sides stumble in their piecemeal pursuit for a seventies hit. Listening to the attempts at early seventies sweetening (hey, there's the obligatory pedal steel guitar!), at times it all sounds more than a little desperate. And did we really need to end the album with a version of "Oh, Happy Day"?
Still, Half/Half contains two sweetly done minor hits: a great remake of Della Reese's 1957 pop hit "And That Reminds Me" which is comparable to the Beach Boys' remake of the Ronettes' "I Can Hear Music," plus "Patch of Blue." Both tracks effectively pit Valli's lead against the other Seasons' soaring harmonies. Album opener "Emily," a solo take on the Laura Nyro song, is also plenty fine, even if its frantic conclusion can't hold up to Nyro's original version, while a group sing written by Chip "Wild Thing" Taylor entitled "Sorry" is engagingly campy in a sixties Cali pop kinda way. (With its sitar outro, it sounds like a track that might've accidentally left off Gazette.) But a few smooth tracks can't mask the fact that this once mighty hit machine was no longer working up to full capacity.
Disco saved the boys' asses, of course. After bumping up against the faux naturelle sounds of the singer/songwriter seventies, the plastic urbanity of disco proved the Seasons' salvation. Even if Gaudio was no longer touring with the Seasons, he soldiered on as the group's core songwriter and studio maven: it was he who co-wrote their boys' two big dance club hits: "Who Loves You" and the nostalgic "December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)," which would prove to be the Seasons' longest chart-topper. CCM's batch of reissues doesn't include the studio LP which featured both singles (1975's Who Loves You), though both songs are showcased on the 1980 concert set, Reunited Live, that is a part of the series. But, before we consider that record, we need to take in the second half of the Half & Half/Helicon reissue, originally released in 1977.
While Half divided its tracks between group and solo, Helicon is only marginally Valli's: only one track features him as solo lead (the seriously sappy closer "I Believe in You"), while relative newcomers Gerry Polci and Don "Mister Dieingly Sad" Ciccone take the lead on tracks like "If We Should Lose Our Love" and "Let's Get It Right." The results – if you'll forgive one last Beach Boys comparison – are rather like listening to Bruce Johnston or Blondie Chaplin handling vocals in the years Brian Wilson was incommunicado: pleasant enough but nowhere near the group at their most exciting. And at its worst, the LP sounds like some unholy blending of Air Supply and the Doobie Brothers. The only time Helicon truly flies is in Gaudio's buoyant disco track, "Rhapsody," featuring both Valli and Ciccone on vocals plus a sessioning Duane Allman on the Hammond keys. When the song hits an extended instrumental break and Frankie's falsetto zooms in over it, the rush is almost enough to elevate the rest of this MOR placeholder.
Valli temporarily quit the group in '77, but three years later, he reunited with members of the disco era Seasons for a two-record Warner Bros. live set. Not surprisingly, given the group's personnel, the emphasis in Reunited Live is on the disco biggies – along with those solo tracks Vallie also made hits in the same era: "Swearin' to God," "My Eyes Adored You" and Barry Gibb's "Grease." The early sixties hits get crammed into a trio of medleys, primarily creating the impression that these once mighty singles are little more than a series of catchy li'l choruses. While this tack may be satisfying in a live setting, it's much less so in a recording of that concert – especially for listeners like myself who have taken the early songs' "stories" to heart. For fans who primarily love the group for its mid-seventies stuff, though, Reunited is probably the Collector's Choice reissue to get. The boys' well-oiled performances are danceliciously crowd-pleasing, though leaving "Rhapsody" off the set is a minor disappointment.
With 1985's Streetfighter (check out that cover photo of Frankie and the gang lookin' all menacing!), producer Gaudio and songwriter Sandy Linzer turned toward the then-prevailing synth-heavy New Wave sound for their sonic pallet, and the results were surprisingly effective. The boys' remake of "Book of Love" even deliberately recalls ABC's "Look of Love" in its tongue-in-cheek opener, while throbbingly infectious tracks like Linzer & Irwin Levine's (the man behind many of Tony Orlando's hits) "Veronica" or Corbetta/Crew's "Commitment" (sounds like the title for a Spandau Ballet song, doesn't it?) could've probably been hits if they'd been tackled by dapper video-friendly young guys instead. And as the cover hints, you can even hear an attempt at returning to the Jersey Boys' hardscrabble roots in some of the lyrics, most notably the title song wherein our narrator recalls bringing a baseball bat to school to fend off bullies and brags about his ability to hot-wire a car. Not that far removed from the street braggadocio of rappers-to-be, when you think about it.
1993's Hope + Glory maintains the same sense of synth plasticity and, more importantly, features Valli more consistently stepping into the vocal forefront – and even tosses in a brief (regrettable) snippet of rap into the mix ("Just the Way You Make Love"). If the results aren't stellar, it's still somewhat comforting to hear the man holding onto the lead and showing that he still hits the high notes, even if the first track (the discoid "Love Has A Mind of Its Own") opens up by making him sound like he's about to sing the extended version of a Duran Duran song. Best track is the finale, Gaudio & Linzer's "The Naked I," which adds a thoroughly acceptable hint of moody Euro-disco into the mix. In terms of potential musical direction, the approach was promising, but, unfortunately, the main thing the future held for Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons was remixes, oldies' tours, Greatest Hits collections and the fossilization of a Broadway tribute.
Of the eleven albums resurrected by Collector's Choice Music, few could probably be considered essential to an understanding of the Four Seasons and their music: their early hits, as noted, came out in an era where albums were largely considered afterthoughts, while the bulk of their releases produced during the heyday of album oriented rock was the work of a band looking everywhere which way to recapture the limelight. But great pop groups don't endure without producing an abundance of tracks as good as the ones which comprise the Official Greatest Hits Package – and the Four Seasons were a great pop group. For many hard-core fans, I suspect these releases will provide welcome relief to their collection of overplayed vinyl; me, I'm happy to have a copy of Gazette back on the shelves where it belongs.
Hey, CCM, any chance of re-releasing that trumped-up Battle of the Bands album, The Beatles Versus The Four Seasons, that came out during the height of Beatlemania? Or is that 'un too much of a licensing nightmare?