ROCK / Frank's blind dates

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The Independent Culture
SOMETIMES, two can be a crowd. On Duets (Capitol/EMI, out on Monday), Frank Sinatra's first studio album in more than a decade, the old master's voice gets shoe-horned into some uncomfortable proximities (not to mention the year's most horrible cover). The disc does not start well. Luther Vandross is a great singer, but his professional smoothness and Frank's dry-as-dust phrasing rub each other up the wrong way, and their 'Lady is a Tramp' is all over the place. The next pairing - 'What Now My Love?', with Aretha Franklin - is much more felicitous, and by the time Barbra Streisand glides into earshot for 'I've Got a Crush on You' all concerned seem to be enjoying themselves: 'I have got a crush, my Barbra, on you.' 'Oh, you make me blush, Francis.'

There is no shortage of laughs on this album. Both 'You Make Me Feel So Young', with Charles Aznavour, and 'Summer Wind', with Julio Iglesias, are very funny; the former for the right reasons, the latter for the wrong ones. The knowledge that most of these collaborations were recorded down the phone does nothing to diminish the pleasure of the occasional nicely judged aside - Frank's 'Hey, you little witch', to Anita Baker at the end of a jaunty 'Witchcraft', is my favourite. But it's a shame producer Phil Ramone could not make more of the fact that his star did not have to share a studio with the people he sung with. Sinead O'Connor, Meat Loaf, Nina Simone, William Burroughs, De La Soul, Madonna, Neil Tennant, Al Green, ex-Happy Monday Sean Ryder and Diamanda Galas would be names worth bearing in mind for Duets II.

As it is, there are not enough surprises to keep Frank interested. His singing is more sprightly than anyone has a right to expect; the only time his voice really shows its age, on the concluding 'One More for the Road', the results are actually very touching. Occasionally there is a flash of the old magic, but he never keeps it up for a whole song. Too often one or both singers know too well what is expected of them. Natalie Cole can do this kind of thing in her sleep (she has just recorded an album with her late father) and while Sinatra swapping lines with Tony Bennett is an enticing prospect, the swishing noise running through 'New York, New York' is the sound of Frank looking at his watch.

If you forget about Kenny G, which is always best, the only really surprising duettist is the dreaded Bono. Anyone who remembers what this man and his group did to Cole Porter's 'Night and Day' will be apprehensive about him getting his hands on 'I've Got You Under My Skin'. In fact, though it hurts me to say it, this is one of the most entertaining collaborations here, with Bono taking his life in his hands to address Frank as 'You old fool'.

From a man who is renowned the world over as the epitome of suavity to a band who, well, aren't. In the era of designer grunge it's ironic that The Levellers' non-designer scruffiness should excite so much adverse comment. 'Forget this so-called dirt of mine, it's just the dust and diesel of passing time,' they assure a sympathetic and noticeably spruce crowd at the Brixton Academy. '100 Years of Solitude', the song from which this not quite timeless couplet is extracted, is typical of their spirited if simplistic South Coast power-folk. This band's olde-worlde posturing will only really convince when they get shire horses to pull their tour bus (and a water-wheel to drive their PA system come to that), but beneath the pre-industrial gloss there's a stirring modern pop group struggling to get out.

They said it could never happen, but Teenage Fanclub are angry. Well, maybe angry is too strong a word, but this most even-tempered of Scottish guitar bands certainly seem to have had enough of being told that they are no more than the sum of their record collections. The Fanclub fight back at the Forum with unheard-of ferocity. Their wit is as dry as ever ('This is the Bad Manners medley,' proclaims ultra-laconic frontman Norman Blake. 'See how many you can spot'), their harmonies even sweeter, but there is a new sense of purpose about the songs, and the guitar undertow is almost savage at times. This is a very fine band being as good as they can be. See them now before their mood improves.

(Photograph omitted)