The Second Disc

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Holiday Gift Guide Review: Matt Monro, “The Rarities Collection” and “Alternate Monro”

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Matt Monro - Rarities CollectionHow lovely to sit here in the shade, with none of the woes of man and maid/I’m glad I’m not young anymore!  The rivals that don’t exist at all, the feeling you’re only two feet tall/I’m glad I’m not young anymore! 

Matt Monro recorded those Alan Jay Lerner lyrics in January 1973 at just 42 years of age.  But by that point, the golden-voiced singer had already acquired enough experience to interpret them with supreme confidence and natural charm.  Monro’s reassuring, crisply impeccable tone earned him early comparisons to Frank Sinatra, but it wasn’t long before others would be compared to Matt Monro.  When, in 2012, the assets of the beleaguered EMI music empire were broken up, Capitol Records went to Universal Music Enterprises (UMe) and Parlophone Records to Warner Music Group (WMG).  As Monro recorded for both onetime EMI labels, it became clear that his entire catalogue – along with that of other artists like Shirley Bassey – would no longer reside under one roof.  What would become of the top-drawer Matt Monro catalogue program spearheaded by Monro’s daughter Michele Monro and audio engineer Richard Moore through projects including The Singer’s Singer, The Man Behind the Voice, Words and Music, and the Rare Monro series?

Luckily, Monro and Moore have already introduced two projects on the “new” Parlophone, drawing on his recordings now controlled by that new-old label.  Alternate Monro presents 27 never-before-released versions of hits and album tracks, as well as versions of songs that first appeared on The Rare Monro and Matt Uncovered: The Rarer Monro. (Both of these essential titles are soon to disappear as a result of the EMI upheaval, so those interested in owning these should snap them up now.)  It’s been joined by The Rarities Collection, a 3-CD box set that’s “budget” in price only.  This deluxe set brings together the Parlophone-controlled material from The Rare Monro and The Rarer Monro, with numerous sonic upgrades and even a couple of previously unissued tracks.

Hit the jump to dive in to both releases!

On The Alternate Monro, variations from the original recordings abound, large and small.  Though Monro has infrequently been regarded as a jazz singer thanks to his enormous facility with the pop songbook, it appears that he very rarely recorded a song the same way twice!  With George Martin producing and Johnnie Spence arranging most of the tracks here, the quality was expectedly remarkable even on the outtakes.  The set has been arranged chronologically, with the tracks dating from 1960 to 1973.

The delightful opening track “These Things Happen” (“…I know they happen…but why must they happen to me?”) was Monro’s debut recording from his very first Parlophone session in 1960.  It speaks to the quality of Monro’s ouevre.  As much fun as the song is, shifting from soft and breezy to brassy and swinging, and back again, Monro’s master recording (Take 10) wasn’t released until 2006!  Here, you’ll hear Take 3, his second full run-through of the song.  “Fare Thee Well, My Pretty Maid” hails from later in 1960, and is taken at a slower tempo than the “hotter” master, with variations in instrumentation, too.

Monro introduced a number of now-standard songs and drew frequently on the contemporary Hollywood and Broadway songbooks, as well.  There are comparatively fewer recordings of him singing “classic” standards, so this alternate (Take 1) of the Gershwins’ “Love Walked In” is a major treat – there’s a smile in his voice on the 1960 recording.  Also, Johnny Mercer’s “Fools Rush In” (Take 2, 1962) boasts a superb arrangement for strings by Spence on par with Nelson Riddle’s ballad scoring – in particular, there’s an intimacy as well as an emotional honesty in both his arrangement and Monro’s vocal.

The singer is at his romantic on “Portrait of My Love” (Take 3, 1960), Clive Westlake’s “Such is My Love” (Take 3, 1961) and the lightly Latin “Why Not Now” (Take 11, 1961).  “Such is My Love” is another example of sublime Spence, with his woodwind rewriting recalling the great Riddle’s finest.  But those familiar only with Monro’s lush orchestral recordings will enjoy the piano-bass-drums format of “Easier Said Than Done” (Take 2) and “Everything is Nothing Without You” (Take 5), both from 1961.  The vocals on these alternate takes are loose and relaxed, and Spence even takes a piano solo on “Everything is Nothing Without You,” a Burt Bacharach/Hal David composition with no other known recordings.  One wonders how this atypical composition from the New York songwriting pair made its way to Monro, but we’re certainly glad it did.

Alternate MonroAnother atypical track is Take 9 of “When Love Comes Along,” an early, lightly country-flavored ballad by Hair composer Galt MacDermot far-removed from that rock musical’s style.  In a nice stylistic touch, Monro’s recording is adorned with Floyd Cramer-esque piano.  The backstory of the recording – Matt’s first made on four-track tape – is described in the excellent liner notes.  There’s information, too, on the reconstruction of Take 7 of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s “Gonna Build a Mountain” from 1961.  On this most joyous of brassy Broadway spirituals, Monro never pushes as a vocalist, and there’s an ease and effortlessness even in the most impassioned passages.  He evinces similar vocal control on the dramatically swelling “My Love and Devotion” (Edit Take 8/9, 1962).

1963’s “Without the One I Love” (Take 5) is a real find here.  There’s a pop flavor to the percussion, but also a cinematic feel with drama and tension thanks to the dark, subtle horns.  Monro’s ability to handle a variety of styles is also evident with “My Friend, My Friend” (Take 8, 1963) and “Without You” (Take 2, 1965), two of those big European ballads so popular in the 1960s, from Italy and France, respectively.  Between those two songs, however, Alternate Monro includes the fifth take of one of the most famous tunes on the entire set: Lionel Bart’s seminal James Bond theme “From Russia with Love” from the movie of the same name.  The tambourine part wasn’t perfect, but the vocal was certainly well-developed by this point.

In 1966, Matt Monro began recording for Capitol Records, and his recordings there are now controlled by Universal.  But Michele Monro and Richard Moore have come up with a clever solution to represent “Born Free,” one of Matt’s signature tunes originally recorded at Capitol.  It appears – along with Leslie Bricusse’s swinging “My Kind of Girl,” Henry Mancini, Jay Livingston and Ray Evans’ romantic movie theme “In the Arms of Love” and Jim Dale and Tom Springfield’s delectable “Georgy Girl” – in 1967 recordings made for the U.S. Air Force Airmen of Note.  These four U.S.A.F. tracks are incredibly rare and incredibly worthwhile, too.  The bold arrangements of “In the Arms of Love” and “Georgy Girl” were written by Billy May (Sinatra’s Come Fly with Me, Trilogy).  The former didn’t become one of Mancini’s all-time standards, but has the composer’s light and easygoing touch which made Monro a perfect vocal match.  “Georgy Girl,” a hit for The Seekers, is a fun diversion in May’s swinging big-band treatment which, like much of May’s work, isn’t without a sense of humor itself.  As for “Born Free” and “My Kind of Girl,” their charts were based on Monro’s touring band arrangements.  On “My Kind of Girl,” both band and singer truly cook – like an angel cooks! – and Monro makes it clear that he owns “Born Free,” with no disrespect to Andy Williams! These aren’t dramatically different interpretations, but different windows into the singer’s art.

Monro returned to EMI’s British offices in 1970, initially signing to the Columbia label (long unrelated by this point in time to the American label of the same name).   After one final album and some single releases, George Martin turned over the producer’s chair to his AIR Studios partner John Burgess.  A handful of songs here have been derived from the first two sessions with Burgess in November 1972, among them a fine, lovely and appropriately wistful rendition (Take 2) of future standard “What a Wonderful World.”  Lionel Rand and Ian Grant’s “Let There Be Love” (Take 2) from the same date is adorned with Bacharach-esque horns.  The new collection’s final three tracks date to 1973.  Alan Parsons engineered Monro on a Peter Sullivan production of Goon favorite Spike Milligan’s “Did It Happen.”  The song was re-recorded by Matt two years later, but this early stab is no less enjoyable.  Also from 1973, there are mature vocals on Charles Aznavour’s “Yesterday When I Was Young” and Lerner and Loewe’s “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore.”  Richard Moore performed some repair work on the latter but thankfully the engineer has left intact the truly bizarre orchestral ending of the song which was abandoned after Take One of the backing track!

Only one recording on Alternate Monro has been released before, and that’s Take 7 of 1963’s “One Day.”  The track was erroneously included on a 1984 compilation LP entitled More Heartbreakers, but it gets an official – and appropriate – CD debut here.   For this track and the 26 other previously unissued performances, Alternate Monro is a classy and essential addition to the singer’s catalogue.  The sound as remastered by Moore is stellar throughout, and the booklet also contains informative notes on every track plus a couple of photographs.  What a treat it is to have a “new” Matt Monro album in 2013!  But we actually have two…

Reviewing Matt Uncovered: The Rarer Monro, I wrote, “No stone has been left unturned.”  That statement still holds true of this compendium.  As with the past volumes from which it’s derived, The Rarities Collection is a tribute to the sublime collaboration of Monro with producer George Martin and arranger Johnnie Spence.  Martin personally produced Monro’s classic versions of Beatles hits like “Yesterday” (reportedly its very first cover!) and “All My Loving,” and even continued his relationship with Matt at his own AIR Studios in the early 1970s, after he had departed Abbey Road.  “All My Loving” is heard here in a subtle, early version with an alternate arrangement.  Every Beatles fan knows that Martin composed orchestral arrangements, but he was no slouch as a melodist, either.  Martin’s own song “Once in Every Long and Lonely While” is heard here in a 1963 version recorded two years before the familiar version from Monro’s I Have Dreamed LP.  An early take of Jimmy Webb’s supremely poignant “Didn’t We” was recorded one month prior to its released counterpart (issued on the 1973 For the Present album) and though the singer’s interpretation isn’t radically different, the arrangements have subtly different flavors.  Piano is much less prominent on the early version and it’s a bit less stately, but with some strong writing for brass and strings.

The thirteen Reditune tracks, arranged and conducted by Malcolm Lockyer, showcase Monro’s versatility in his earliest years as a professional singer: he’s passionately intense on “My Funny Valentine,” soft and sensual on “Amor, Amor, Amor,” brash on “The Birth of the Blues” and intimate on “The Nearness of You.”  The eight-song set from Monro’s 1961 BBC radio program is equally elegant, and a 1961 jazz trio session with George Martin at the controls is illuminating.  Of this last group of songs, all are atypically spare but typically sensitive, and Martin has cited the piano-only reading of his own composition “No One Will Ever Know” as his favorite recording by Matt.  It’s not difficult to see why, as Monro brings out the best in the song with his crisp, pointed reading.

There’s always something calm and reassuring in Monro’s relaxed tones, and his vocal floats above a lush bed of strings on the 1958 BBC stereo test transmission of “It Can’t Be Wrong.” But he also swings hard on a delicious “Old Devil Moon” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” with Paul Fenouhlet’s arrangement inspired by Nelson Riddle’s chart for Monro’s mutual admirer, Frank Sinatra.  Matt’s vocal strength only seemed to grow over the years, however, as he honed his craft and his considerable interpretive skills.  He brings depth to a 1972 take of “How Can I Live Without Your Love,” a sweeping ballad with a beat that was excised from his album For the Present, and goes even further in a pop/rock direction on 1976’s unfinished “One Last Try.”

A selection of jingles and commercials are present among the bonus tracks, with Monro extolling the virtues in song of everything from Macleans toothpaste (“Show teeth white!  Happy smile bright!”) to Newport cigarettes (“Smooth and fresh is the Newport taste/Welcome flavor you won’t forget!”) and Zal disinfectant (“Zal kills germs, just kicks them out!”)  Two late-period live recordings of songs more closely associated with other artists – the Sammy Davis, Jr. staple “Birth of the Blues” and the immortal “(Theme From) New York, New York” – are also a treat near the end of this set’s final disc.

The Rarities Collection is packaged with a new booklet containing more information than on previous releases – recording details as well as selected track-by-track annotations.    Sound quality has been paramount to all of the releases overseen by Michele Monro and Richard Moore, and this is no exception – sound is uniformly excellent, and might well surprise you considering the age and source of many tracks.  The exemplary treatment of Monro’s timeless catalogue on projects like Alternate Monro and The Rarities Collection could hardly be bettered.  For a stellar portrait of the man and his music, look no further.

You can order Alternate Monro at Amazon U.S. and Amazon U.K.!

The Rarities Collection is also available at Amazon U.S. and Amazon U.K. !

Written by Joe Marchese

December 20, 2013 at 09:49

One Response

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  1. Thank you! Your site has always been a great champion for Matt Monro’s work, and that is very nice.

    I’d love to see the Second Disc start covering more reissues of great jazz/pop singers from all periods, Fresh Sounds, whether official or not, has been doing some great reissues, especially of female vocalists of the early LP era. These singers also deserve the great reviews that you provide.

    Kevin

    December 20, 2013 at 17:07


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