Tuesday , September 29 2020
Collector’s Choice Music reissues eleven Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons albums: falsetto fans swoon!

Music Review: Workin’ Our Way Back Through The Four Seasons Catalog – Part One

Depending on when you grew up with ’em, they were either the Four Seasons or Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons. The first was a group that made its name on a string of falsetto-driven 60’s rhythm-‘n’-pop gems; the second rebuilt its sagging career on disco and the imitation nostalgia of Grease-Is-the-Word. Though early inductees into the Rock Hall of Fame, for the longest time the only collections of the Seasons Sound available on compact disc was anthologies, but now the pop obsessives at Collector’s Choice Music – with a commendable eye toward cashing in on the Broadway success of Jersey Boys – have dug more deeply into the catalog with the simultaneous release of eleven of the JBoys’ original albums.
Ten of these records are packaged two to a jewel case, with the eleventh, the 1980 reunion disc Reunited Live, the only single-disc selection. Six of the releases capture the group from the sixties; five are from its seventies and eighties incarnations. Though, in sum, this is only about a third of the guys’ considerable discography. It still represents a goodly chunk of pop music, particularly for listeners only familiar with the oldies station standbys. So let’s take the easy route and examine these babies by separate eras, okay?

The Sixties

The first long-player to be reissued comes from when the boys were switching labels from Vee-Jay (where they had their first trio of Number Ones – “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Walk Like A Man”) to Philips Records: 1964’s Folk-Nanny and Born to Wander. The first is a Vee-Jay release compiled of tracks that the company still had shelved in the library. Though this collection of left-behinds contained a modest hit (the boys’ remake of Maurice Williams’ “Stay”), the album it appears in remains a fairly crass attempt at capitalizing on the then-booming Hootenanny craze. Only thing folkie about Folk-Nanny is a cover pic of our boys holding acoustic guitars in front of what looks to be a spinning wheel. Nanny‘s opener, “Connie-O,” was even the flip to “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” though doubtless some Vee-Jay exec thought the addition of that big “O” [supply your own joke] at the end made the song look folkish.
Fraud or not, the record contains some prime singin’ in the Seasons’ patented Jersey r-&-p style. Two choice doo-wop ballads (“Goodnight My Love,” “Teardrops”) are nicely covered. Plus we get a chirpy beach music cover of the theme song from the Leslie Caron movie, Lili, and a relentlessly upbeat pop song by the group’s primary composing team, producer Bob Crewe & keyboardist Bob Gaudio, entitled “Melancholy,” which includes a dippy chorus (“Gosh oh golly, I’m melancholy”) that only lead singer Valli could’ve pulled off. Not an indispensable Seasons disc, but a consistently entertaining one.
Second half, Born to Wander (subtitled “Tender And Soulful Ballads [Folk Flavored]”), was recorded for the new label and is a much more consistently constructed collection. Acoustic guitar plays more prominently than ever before. In place of the hand-clapping orchestrations that embellished the Vee-Jay hits is a frequently sparer sound reminiscent of the Kingston Trio. The quartet even covers the Trio’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
Not all of the boys’ attempts at aping the chart-topping folk poppers work – it’s just plain odd to hear these tenderfeet singing, “get along little pony,” let alone pretending to be returning Confederate soldiers – but the bulk of ’em do, even if the inclusion of a Beach Boys-inflected ballad entitled “No Surfin’ Today” near the end of the platter seems puzzlingly out of place. Wander‘s centerpiece track for most fans will be “Silence Is Golden” (originally recorded as a B-Side to “Rag Doll”). With its evocative sliver of trembling electric guitar and soaring harmonies, “Silence” is a masterwork of high-pitched heartbreak, superior in every way to the imitative hit version released by Brit-poppers the Tremeloes a year later. While I wouldn’t recommend this two-fer disc as the first choice for neophyte Seasonal explorers, it remains a solid set of tunes.
The same can’t, unfortunately, be said for CCM’s second pair of reissues, 1965’s Entertain You and On Stage With. Platter two’s the sticking point: a faux concert album released by Vee-Jay to grab the band’s fans one more time. Perhaps if the material had been fake live remakes of the group’s hits, the company might’ve been onto something. But instead, On Stage‘s material is supper club schlock: show tunes (an non-ironic “Brotherhood of Man,” “Just in Time”), movie tunes (“Blues in the Night”), pop fluff (“Jada”) plus an excruciating “comic” routine entitled “How Do You Make A Hit Song.” While this material may’ve flown back when the group was starting out – listen to Frankie’s recitation in the middle of “My Mother’s Eyes” and you can imagine a room fulla geezers happily weeping over their veal platters – it definitely smacked of mercenary desperation by ‘65.
If you’re willing to think of On Stage as a set of largely irrelevant bonus tracks tacked onto the end of Entertain You, though, the package is probably more satisfying. Entertain opens with a triptych of show-centered tracks: two devoted to the tried-&-true metaphor of putting on a game show biz face through a broken heart, the third a surprisingly effective cover of Lionel Bart’s “Where Is Love?” which shows that Valli & Company could do show tunes without tamping down their own identities. A strong thematic opening.
The hit numbers come from Crewe and/or Gaudio, though. “Bye Bye Baby (Baby Goodbye)” is a slick dramatic monologue told from the PoV of a married man attempting to break off a relationship with the one he really loves (“Can’t put it off any longer,” Valli pouts, and, though you really don’t wanna, you can’t help empathizing with his reluctance), while Gaudio’s “Big Man in Town” is a strikingly delivered opus of class-based yearning which opens with harmonica that might’ve been left over from Born to Wander. In his lyrical acknowledgment of class differences, Gaudio was way ahead of most of his teen-pop peers. You just know that Jersey youngster Bruce Springsteen was paying close attention to the words, however.
Of the three sixties sets to come out of this crop of reissues, though, the soundest has to be the twosome featuring 1966’s Working My Way Back to You and 1968’s The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette. The latter platter, while hit-free, is a small period gem: an attempt by the gang (collaborating with folk-singer Jake Holmes) at creating the Seasons’ own big concept album á la Sgt. Pepper. Though the album proved a commercial failure (in part, one suspects, because few in ’68 were prepped to make enough of a paradigm shift for these guys to play in the Sophisticated Rockers Band), in execution, Gazetteholds its own against many of the era’s better known concept pieces.
It has everything you’d look for in a Big Statement LP: grand orchestral statements (“American Crucifixion Crusade”), snippets of musical whimsy (“Mrs. Stately’s Garden,” “Idaho”), arty lyrics (w./ more than a trace of Van Dyke Parksiness), social commentary (“Wall Street Village Day,” the folk-garagey title song) and “She’s Leaving Home” generation-gapped poignancy (“Saturday’s Father”). Since Valli’s trademark falsetto was then out-of-favor (i.e., not cool enough for the late sixties), the vocal emphasis is on Valli’s tenor croon and Pet Sounds type harmony. Each track is gorgeously performed – but given that even the Wilson fam was struggling to hold onto their audience in ’68, the change probably wasn’t enough for the era’s audience. Still, a track like “Wonder What You’ll Be” could’ve easily been slipped into Pet Sounds and not sounded out-of-place.

Though two singles were released from Gazette (the campily old-fashioned “Idaho” and “Saturday’s Father”), neither went very far. (To my 21st century ears, the track to’ve pushed is the engagingly poppy “Something on Her Mind.”) Perhaps another factor contributing to the LP’s failure to catch a late sixties audience was its unabashed Catholic nature; where all the hip bands were venturing into Eastern philosophy, the Seasons held onto the religious imagery of their youth, centering their six-minute-plus opener around the “Prince of Peace.” Three years before such savior-centric works as Godspell and Jesus Christ, Superstar, the results appeared disastrously out of step. Heard today, however, Gazette (which this writer first bought as an LP cut-out back in 1970) deserves to be rediscovered: just to hear Frankie asking us to “look at her/she’s groovy” on record finale “Soul of A Woman” is an unabashed pleasure.

Working My Way Back to You is almost as wonder-packed: the prime stumbling block toward making it an undisputed k.o. is the inclusion of three songs from Entertain You, a vestige of the days when record companies still largely thought of long-players as patched-together assemblages of tracks, their teenaged audience possessing the long-term memory of a fruit fly. Still, even the familiar tracks fit within this package, and the newer cuts are even better. Aside from the classic Motown-steeped “Working” (also a major hit for the Spinners), the disc features the debut of “Can’t Get Enough of You” (variously covered by ? and the Mysterians, Color Field and Smashmouth). Both tracks were composed by Sandy Linzer & Denny Randell, also responsible for the Seasons’ hit “Let’s Hang On!” They definitely did good for the boys.

But the new songs by Gaudio and/or Crew are plenty fine, too. Only clunker in the bunch is Gaudio’s misfired attempt at an anti-protestor screed, “Beggars Parade.” It isn’t the worst attempt by a bunch of pop fogies to waggle their fingers at Kids Today (that would have to be Mike Love’s “Student Demonstration Time,” which unsuccessfully tried to graft its scolding lyrics over Lieber & Stoller’s “Riot in Cell Block 9”), but it comes darn close. Measurably superior are the Crewe-credited “I Woke Up” (great use of the goup’s trademark clappin’ rhythm here), Gaudio/Crewe’s “Too Many Memories,” plus two slices of hardscrabble lyricism (“Comin’ Up in the World,” “Everybody Knows My Name”). Bob Gaudio’s “Name” is especially intriguing, the song of a guy who has spent so much time working to “climb the ladder of success” that he’s missed out on home and family. Unlike “Parade,” the song’s unapologetically square plaint works – in large part because Gaudio puts it in the mouth of a believably inhabited Valli character, delivering Gaudio’s plainspoken lyrics with an effective Sonny Bono whine. If most of the ’66 pop audience never bothered to listen that carefully, well, that was their big loss . . .
(Part Two of this review follows our Jersey Boys into the rocky 1970’s.)

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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