Most popular composers, no matter how well known they are or how vast their body of work, tend to be remembered for a relatively small number of songs -- and that's certainly the case with Cole Porter. Despite his status as one of the century's most enduring Broadway songwriters (George Gershwin and Irving Berlin are his principal competitors for the top slot), only the most knowledgeable aficionados can name more than a dozen of his tunes. For the rest of us, then, this three-CD boxed set -- a sequel to a more predictably programmed predecessor -- provides welcome context, contrasting some of his canon's biggest shots with obscurities that should allow even fans of Porter's work to discover him anew.
The collection, which is accompanied by an oversized, 158-page book brimming with details, information and marvelous photographs (not to mention a cover illustration by the venerable Al Hirschfield), is sometimes repetitious: For instance, the lineup features two versions apiece of "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)," "Dream Dancing," "You'd Be so Nice to Come Home To" and "It's All Right With Me," as well as three renditions of the masterful "What Is This Thing Called Love?" by, respectively, Leo Reisman and His Orchestra, Leslie Hutchinson, and the Nat King Cole Trio. In addition, several of the tracks are performed by relatively contemporary artists, as opposed to the vintage kind -- although, to be fair, there are times when this was the only option. Take "The Tale of the Oyster," which was removed from 1929's Fifty Million Frenchmen, in part because critics objected to its subject matter: "Oyster" details the travels of a shellfish that's consumed by a shipboard socialite only to be vomited back into the ocean from whence it came. Yet in the hands of cabaret performers Joan Morris and William Bolcom, the song becomes an amusing opportunity to observe Porter treating a mildly bawdy topic with his trademark cleverness and erudition. As the title bivalve puts it, "I've had a taste of society/And society has had a taste of me."
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Other charmers include Mae Barnes's spin through "The Laziest Gal in Town," which went down with the ship that was 1950's Stage Fright, which was among director Alfred Hitchcock's few flops; Ethel Merman's foghorn treatment of "I've Still Got My Health" and "Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please," rescued from the 1940 ultra-obscurity Panama Hattie; "Only Another Boy and Girl," a swellegant musical nursery rhyme enlivened by vocalist Jane Harvey and the Benny Goodman Quintet; and "Cherry Pies Ought to Be You," a dizzyingly silly list of compliments ("Everything super-dooo ought to be you!") penned for the 1950 disappointment Out of This World. Throughout these songs and others, Porter's gleefully excessive wordplay is positively intoxicating, with pun piling upon witticism, and symbol cuddling up to metaphor, until the listener's sense of equilibrium is long gone.
Not all of Porter's rhymes were timeless, no doubt, but these three discs demonstrate that more of them were than a lot of us supposed. You're Sensational, indeed.