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The Dean Is Risen

Some Dean Martin albums we wish existed

If Dean Martin had been alive to celebrate his 89th birthday this year, he might have dropped his Titleist on the green in the hazy morning, then slipped into the dimmest booth of some Hollywood time-capsule steak house for dinner. He might have watched TV all day, hour after hour of contemptible programming crawling by without a single reference to the man born Dino Crocetti.

One thing this seemingly garrulous yet unreachable star would not have done, though, was listen to the 12 CDs compiling his Capitol Records boom of the '50s and early '60s. Plenty of the material on the albums can be dismissed, despite the charming Brylcreem ooze of Martin's modest, imperturbable baritone. For every triumph of irresistible silliness -- that is, "That's Amore" (included not on Cha Cha de Amor or Dino: Italian Love Songsbut on Dean Martin Sings) -- these reissues offer two shaggy-dog shrug-alongs. Blame the troughs in listenability on the trend (pioneered for the same label by Martin's pal Frank Sinatra) of bundling songs by theme rather than by quality.

Here, then, is a guide to the highlights of three solid Martin concept records -- and five he should have made.

Album:This Time I'm Swingin'!
Concept: Martin borrows Sinatra's hat and his best arranger, Nelson Riddle.
Highs: A woozy "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face"; a devilish "Heaven Can Wait"
Low: Bonus track "Choo'n Gum"

Album: Swingin' Down Yonder
Concept: Look at the cover.
High: All involved must have been very high. Still, only Martin could have sold "When It's Sleepy Time Down South."
Lows: Actually, none.

Album: Hey, Brother, Pour the Wine
Concept: Capitol leftovers capitalizing on the resurgent Martin, who pushed the Beatles out of the No. 1 spot on the singles chart in 1964 (with "Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime"), for Sinatra's new label, Reprise.
High: The absurd title track
Low: The more absurd "Peddler Man (Ten I Loved)"

Album: Sings Favorite Italian Recipes
Concept: While on Capitol, Martin invested in a chain of Italian restaurants called Dino's. Really.
Highs: "Gnocchi to My Heart," "Risotto Voce"
Low: "Meatball Grinder"

Album: When I Go a-Fishin'
Concept: The riverboat gambler of Down Yonderhits the sandbar.
High: "My Tackle, Your Box"
Low: "That's My Line"

Album: Dean Martin's Craps!
Concept: The man whose death Las Vegas observed by dimming its lights rolls straight sevens with a tribute to his favorite town.
High: "Fuzzy Dice"
Low: "Poker? I Hardly Know Her"

Album: Dean Martin's Block Party
Concept: Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. shared many stages over the years, but before the wham of Sam came the shocks of Foxx. Dino works blue with black old-schoolers Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, etc.
High: Martin's musical version of the Foxx routine "Mother Frockers and Cork Suckers"
Low: The all-cast Beatles medley "The Slappy White Album"

Album: Laundry Day
Concept: Inspired by Sinatra's devastating "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry," Martin recorded this bittersweet, fabric-soft set.
Highs: "Drip Dry," "Love on the Line"
Low: "Dye, Jerry, Dye" -- Scott Wilson

Good to Be King
Tom Petty's everyman act

Elvis had Memphis, Dylan will always have New York City in the '60s, and the Boss has the Jersey Shore. No matter what corner of the globe each member of America's male musical pantheon turns up in, their music maintains a sense of place -- roots to their varying strains of rock.

Tom Petty, on the other hand, suffers no such burden. Beyond a smattering of hard-core devotees, hardly anyone knows he's from Gainesville, Florida, unless they're from Gainesville, too. And aside from incidental mention, neither that city nor its matron state plays a central role lyrically for Petty. By declining to tether his songs geographically (save for an ongoing affection for Southern California, which is transient at its core), Petty has attempted, consciously or otherwise, to speak to America at large for the past 30 years -- a daunting task in a nation where every county has its own particular cultural abnormalities. Herein, he's managed to slip through the cracks and, in so doing, succeed spectacularly.

Great musicians typically share one thing in common: boundless creative range. They can serve up the high, hard heat as well as paint the corners delicately with off-speed stuff. Yet in nurturing his everyman act, the notoriously humble Petty has religiously and apolitically pitched to the middle of the plate, perhaps explaining how he's managed to keep a relatively low profile while selling more than 50 million albums.

Exempting the pioneering Presley, Dylan and Springsteen have chosen to genre-jump liberally, all the while plying the peaks and valleys of their emotional experience. Meanwhile, Petty's songs, while topically dynamic, seem more even-keeled. Petty never appears fit for a straitjacket, just a little bent out of shape at times; and his compositions are the portrait of consistency and intimacy -- never any bigger than the listeners themselves.

While these are attributes that tend not to break an artist from the pack, they also serve as a lake cabin of sorts for those who've been led down a perilous path. As sometime collaborator Stevie Nicks once told Billboard magazine: "Tom Petty's songs are like a great book that you revisit when you need help."

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