erasing clouds

Bobby Darin, Aces Back to Back!

reviewed by dave heaton

I know very little about Bobby Darin, except for a few of his biggest hits. So I come to Aces Back to Back! without many preconceived notions, ready to form my own impressions of the man. Aces Back to Back! is a labor-of-love collection out to form or shift people's impressions. It's an attempt to show why Bobby Darin is undervalued as an entertainer and artist, its release timed shortly in advance of the upcoming Kevin Spacey-starring Darin biopic. The CD's 20 tracks are meant to showcase the various sides of Darin's talents, while a DVD features some of the same performances plus footage from a lost documentary on Darin.

From the opening horns and Darin's snappy delivery of "This Could Be the Start of Something Big," it's clear that putting on a show is Darin's forte. That might seem like an obvious statement, or an unexceptional one, but to me it's the essential description. Aces Back to Back! might be out to prove that Darin was more than just a showman, but to me it's first and foremost a testament to his skills as an entertainer, as someone who could get on stage and wow a crowd. He's the musical equivalent of a Jerry Bruckheimer film - all about bringing a crowd to their feet. The difference is in the style; where an action movie's all about energy and fear, Bobby Darin's all about class, panache and romance. He's sleek and smooth and ready to seduce (watch his Don Juan eyes in the loverman's version of "All I Have to Do Is Dream" on the DVD).

Aces Back to Back! might be out to convince us otherwise, but to me Darin is all about substance over style. He sings for effect, not for getting to any sort of raw emotional core. Aces Back to Back! contains performances of songs I love in their original form (Bob Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight") and songs I hate ("Neil Diamond's "Song Song Blue") - in both cases he offers exquisite vocal performances that drain the songs of emotion, replacing specific feelings with generic ones. There's no greater example than "Mack the Knife," a murder ballad turned into a perfect showbiz riff that feels like it's about nothing.

Aces Back to Back! isn't all drama and flair. Songs like "Simple Song of Freedom" and "If I Were a Carpenter" replace glitz and glamour with contemplation and seriousness, but it still is hard for me to grasp the truth within the image. "Simple Song of Freedom" comes off like a token serious moment more than a strident song of protest, even as the lyrics strongly refer to the "war machine" and so on. His subtle reading of "All the Way" is maybe the only track among the 20 where he hits a truly genuine note for me, but even then there's some stock showbiz mannerisms.

Don't confuse my descriptions for condemnation - Aces Back to Back! does show Bobby Darin as a genius, but one whose brilliance lies in his ability to dazzle a crowd, to play them like a guitar. To watch the performances on the DVD is to see this in action, to see how handily he uses his voice, face and body to entertain a crowd. That show-stopping quality shouldn't be undervalued...but it shouldn't be confused for something it isn't, either. There's entertainers who are able to reach a point where they've transcended the glitz and struck a tangible emotional chord. I don't believe Bobby Darin is that entertainer. But when he has the crowd swinging in the palm of his hand, does it matter?


Issue 26, September 2004

this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright (c) 2005 erasing clouds