1961's "Sinatra & Strings" marked some firsts for Frank: it was the first album on Reprise to focus on his balladeering as opposed to the swingin' sounds of "Ring A Ding Ding" and "Swing Along With Me." It was the first time he recorded some of the Great American Songbook's best entries ("That's All," "Yesterdays," and his only solo "Stardust" since the Tommy Dorsey era version). Finally, and perhaps most significantly, it was his first record with arranger Don Costa at the helm.
In my "Trilogy" review, I spoke pretty negatively of Costa's standing among Frank's core arrangers, and much of his later work certainly warrants criticism. However, for his inaugural effort, Costa brought his A-game: his string arrangements are lush, warm and creative, with a fantastic grasp on subtlety and dynamics that would gradually disappear in his subsequent efforts. Despite its grandiose sound, the record still possesses a pleasant, laid back vibe that cements it as one of Frank's most inviting.
As expected, Frank sings every song here with authority and conviction, and his climactic high notes on songs like "Prisoner Of Love" and the chilling redux of "All Or Nothing At All" are some of his most powerful and memorable. His take on "It Might As Well Be Swing" features some of the most inventive phrasing in his entire career (listen to how he plays with line "I'm as busy as a spider spinning daydreams"). "That's All" in Frank's hands is sung with great care, possessing a tenderness and sincerity lacking in other versions. "Night And Day," a song I believe Frank recorded more versions of than any other song, is given its most powerful reading here, largely in part of Costa's lurching and eventually triumphant arrangement, as well as Frank's taut, almost menacing delivery of the rarely heard opening verse.
Perhaps most significantly, this cd contains Frank's first formal studio recording of the classic "Come Rain Or Come Shine." Previously only recorded by him as a V-disc in 1945, Frank relishes the chance to claim this standard as his own, and boy does he ever. Frank sings each word like it's a confrontation, his inflections and phrasing on words like 'deep' and 'high' alone being a masterclass in emotional coloring. The song also boasts probably the best chart Costa ever wrote for Sinatra, with focused dynamics and tight, inventive instrumental passages that match Frank's charming delivery.
While the previous Reprise records were very solid, "Sinatra & Strings" was the first grand slam of the Reprise era, and one of the few that can hang its fedora with the best of his Capitol era.