Review: Nat “King” Cole, “Love is the Thing” and “The Very Thought of You”
Such is the magic of Analogue Productions’ pair of hybrid Super Audio CDs, part of the label’s Nat “King” Cole reissue program. Thanks to the gorgeous remastering and improved quality afforded by the format, you’ll hear every breath, as if you were in the studio alongside Cole himself during a recording session. The versatile artist is today remembered for many things: his pioneering jazz sides, his posthumous duet of “Unforgettable” with daughter Natalie, and this time of year especially, his Christmas recordings including the definitive reading of Mel Torme and Robert Wells’ “The Christmas Song.” But Analogue’s reissues of 1957′s Love is the Thing (CAPP 824 SA) and its 1958 follow-up, The Very Thought of You (CAPP 1084 SA), are potent reminders that, like Frank Sinatra, Cole was an album artist of the highest order, crafting LPs with thematic and sonic unity.
A certain effortless quality marks Love is the Thing. While the album is sophisticated and with a certain refined air, Cole’s choices are musically adventurous yet never labored. Just listen to his languid take on the usually-rollicking “Ain’t Misbehavin’” to see how the singer made a song his own. Cole makes every performance sound like that song’s quintessential one, even a song as recorded as often as Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parrish’s “Stardust.” This particular song was a standard even in 1957, but Cole imbues it with an intimacy not heard previously. Similarly, on Victor Young and Edward Heyman’s “When I Fall in Love,” you hang on every single lyric and believe each word, however familiar. “At Last” is so very different from Etta James’ classic recording, with arranger and conductor Gordon Jenkins (by no coincidence a close associate of Frank Sinatra’s) providing his customary strength in string orchestration. The take here on “It’s All in the Game” is more emotional than Tommy Edwards’ laid-back hit version of a couple years later, and more subtle than the arrangement Jenkins provided years earlier for Louis Armstrong. “I Thought About Marie,” written by Jenkins, sits well alongside the more well-known songs that populate the disc.
This romantic, atmospheric LP spent eight weeks atop the charts and was Cole’s first stereophonic LP. For this listener, though, the stereo tracks aren’t the attention-grabber, gorgeous though they sound. Analogue Productions has made the disc playable in three configurations of 24 indexed tracks: a CD and SACD layer with the original 10-track album in mono and stereo plus two bonus tracks; and a three-channel surround SACD layer with the original 10 tracks. This multichannel program is a revelation. The separation is beautiful, and the clarity of the recording is stunning. This is both a testament to original producer Lee Gillette and Capitol’s engineers, as well as to remastering gurus Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray. The multichannel tracks (from the three-track session masters) are clean and crisp with Cole’s soft vocals up front and center, where they should be, and the monaural recordings are also life-like as taken directly from the close-miked masters. While Hoffman previously tackled these titles for DCC some years back, I can’t believe that he hasn’t outdone himself with these remarkable new editions. Hit the jump for the scoop on The Very Thought of You!
The cover artwork for The Very Thought of You (1958) depicts an intense Cole with his eyes closed, maybe in a reverie; this feeling is apparent in the recordings. Though featuring fewer instantly recognizable songs, this follow-up “concept album” shares a similar tone to its predecessor but is even more dreamlike and passionate. Bathed in Jenkins’ lush and sensual string settings, Cole’s voice is reassuring on Steve Allen’s “Impossible” (“Nothing is impossible/If you are here with me”) and the singer performs another reinvention with Harry Warren’s “I Found a Million Dollar Baby (in a Five and Ten Cent Store”), turning this novelty into a romantic ballad as compelling as the others. With all due respect to those that followed, this is how standards are sung – and made, for that matter. It’s no surprise that the recording here of “This is All I Ask,” perhaps the most acclaimed song penned by Gordon Jenkins, is another triumph, this time with an air of melancholy.
The Very Thought of You was an unusually-stuffed album for the time with 14 tracks; two outtakes later surfaced and are included here as mono bonus tracks: “Don’t Blame Me” and “There is No Greater Love.” Like another album cut, “For All We Know,” “Don’t Blame Me” was a standard previously associated with the artist via his King Cole Trio days. For those familiar with Cole’s earlier recordings, the transformation was palpable. These albums feature no piano playing or overt nods at his jazz background, even if his ear for a popular song and interpretive skills most certainly did come into play in both eras. The Very Thought of You features 16 tracks (the 14-track LP plus two bonus tracks) playable in three-channel, stereo and mono. Due to space restrictions, the mono mixes are not available on the standard CD layer.
Chris Hall supplies a six-page essay for each title, and Hall skillfully comments on both the technical and artistic aspects of the recordings. The original front and back cover art are also lovingly replicated. (In fact, both of the other front-line audiophile labels, Audio Fidelity and Mobile Fidelity, could take a cue from Analogue’s work here. Both of those labels frown upon bonus tracks and liner notes, yet Analogue’s reissues show how both can be incorporated without compromising the integrity of the original release. In addition, the art direction is of a higher caliber than on many Audio Fidelity titles, and the multichannel program is an improvement on Mobile Fidelity’s otherwise-terrific stereo SACD releases.)
Another concept album, Where Did Everyone Go? (1963) will be coming later in this series. This third and final Cole/Jenkins collaboration takes on a darker hue, however. Other Capitol Cole titles promised for release include: After Midnight (1957), Just One of Those Things (1957), St. Louis Blues (1958) and The Nat “King” Cole Story (1961).
It’s hard to avoid comparisons with Capitol labelmate Frank Sinatra; not only did Sinatra record many of the same songs, but Cole worked with Jenkins, Billy May and Nelson Riddle, all to fortuitous and memorable results. Yet I can think of no better treatment for Frank Sinatra’s Capitol recordings than the truly deluxe treatment with unique mono, stereo & multichannel programs on hybrid SACD delivered by Analogue Productions here. With no disrespect to these incredibly worthy recordings, wouldn’t that be something!
While expensive, each disc consists of two or three separate discs’ worth of music, and is worth every penny. You can check out Love is the Thing here, and The Very Thought of You here. The original LP banner on each title was emblazoned “Capitol STEREO: The Full Spectrum of Sound.” Well, that spectrum has never sounded better than it does here. These landmark ballad collections sparkle; in these new reissues, they are unforgettable, indeed.