October 29, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Earlier this year, Frank Sinatra re-signed with Capitol Records,where, in the ’50s, he made the records regarded as his creativewatermark. Sinatra could have plopped down in front of a piano andknocked out a bunch of saloon songs, as he did on albums like 1981’sstarkly gorgeous She Shot Me Down-albums where the creases in hisvoice say as much as the lyrics. But no-Sinatra’s return to theCapitol fold had to be an event. Thus was born DUETS (Capitol), whichfinds Ol’ TelePrompTer Eyes sharing a microphone both with naturalallies (Tony Bennett and Liza Minnelli) and with relative upstarts(Anita Baker, Luther Vandross, and even U2’s Bono).As a marketing scheme, Duets is a masterful stroke. Sinatra’spartners are meant to reel in listeners who weren’t even born when hemade his first comeback (1973), and old fans will be lured back bythe promise of remakes of his best-known songs. Sinatra probablydoesn’t mind the oldies quotient, either; as he told a New Yorkaudience last year, ”They don’t write songs anymore. Maybe they do inGermany, but who cares about Germany?” Musically, though, Duets isless focused. It can’t decide if it wants to be a reverent tribute ora Dean Martin Celebrity Roast set to music.Unlike Sinatra’s last studio album, 1984’s L.A. Is My Lady, Duetsdoesn’t aim to be contemporary. Coproducers Phil Ramone and HankCattaneo re-create the brassy big-band arrangements of the originalrecordings. And the album sounds fabulous-the brass has anin-your-face punch, the strings an elegant warmth. The duetsthemselves, however, are a mixed lot. Natalie Cole is in her elementas she glides in and out of ”They Can’t Take That Away From Me”(practicing with Dad’s old records must have helped). LutherVandross’ new- jack croon eases alongside Sinatra’s craggy tone on”The Lady Is a Tramp,” and Bennett and Sinatra ham it up in bestvariety-show tradition on ”New York, New York.” Other partners, likeBarbra Streisand on ”I’ve Got a Crush on You” and Aretha Franklin ona woefully misarranged swing version of ”What Now My $ Love,” merelyshow off their vocal chops-it barely sounds as if they and Sinatrawere in the same room together.That’s because, in most cases, they weren’t. The album boasts anew technology called the ”Entertainment Digital Network,” whichenables musicians and singers in different cities or countries to belinked up. Technically, the results are fine, but the core is hollow.Sinatra goes through his paces, and his partners sing the songsausterely and reverently, as if their eyes are focused intently onthe sheet music. Rarely do the twain meet emotionally. This isglaringly apparent when Bono, murmuring through ”I’ve Got You UnderMy Skin” in his rock-lounge-star mode, inserts a few mild disses,like ”Don’t you know, you old fool.” Uh, Frank, were you listening?In fact, Duets accomplishes the seemingly impossible task ofmaking you feel a little sorry for one of the most arrogant geniusesin showbiz history. Re-creating songs that in some cases wererecorded four decades ago, the 77- year-old Sinatra is made tocompete against his own past with a voice that’s clearly frayedaround the edges. But when he swings into ”You Make Me Feel SoYoung”-despite being paired with the bland French pop star CharlesAznavour-his cocky vitality returns. And in the most tellingindictment of the state of balladeering, Sinatra often overshadowspartners half his age. Forced to prove their mettle alongsideSinatra’s weathered but sharp and charismatic phrasing, lightweightslike Gloria Estefan (on ”Come Rain or Come Shine”) and JulioIglesias (on a slack remake of ”Summer Wind”) positively wilt.A bigger problem with Duets is the concept itself. In theiroriginal incarnations, many of these songs were late-night saloonballads. Sinatra caressed them as if he were sitting alone in anafter-hours joint nursing a scotch and addressing the bartender. So,as vocal duets, most of these songs simply don’t make conceptualsense. For that reason, the best track on Duets is a medley of ”Allthe Way” and ”One for My Baby (And One More for the Road).” Sinatrasings it as one deep, long sigh, and his partner, Kenny G, merelyadds a few of his unctuous sax squiggles. At moments like this, thealbum unintentionally hammers home an old feeling: that all we needis Frank, a few instruments, and a timeless melody. They don’t sing’em like that anymore-not even in Germany. B

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