Thursday, May 24, 2012

Elvis: One Name And Worthy, Almost The Thriller Of Its Day!

The Good: Decent vocals, Some good lyrics, Moments of musical innovation that are wonderful and enduring.
The Bad: Short, Lack of musical/vocal diversity.
The Basics: Elvis Presley's remaster with some of the hits that made Elvis an icon makes Elvis a worthwhile disc.

Sometimes a reissue of an album does exactly what it needs to eliminate many of the problems of the original album. For sure, there is historical value to archiving the classic albums of the rock and roll era to preserve what was originally there, but given that they were almost all released originally on LP records with - as near as I can tell from the albums I have recently come across from early in that period - an average of a thirty minute runtime, simple transfers to compact disc make for a poor use of the medium. It's hard for an album purist like myself (the album is going to be the casualty of the digital download era) to not concede that two classic albums can fit on a single c.d. and make for a better enduring value than keeping them separated just for purity sake. In fact, I've completely come around to the other point of view on classic albums; there's almost an obligation by record companies to make the short albums into worthwhile c.d.s by doubling up when they are transferred to disc.

Fans of Elvis Presley are given an apparent middle option, which is that early Elvis Presley albums are recut with additional tracks from around the same period as the album being featured. So, for example, the twelve-track Elvis is re-presented on compact disc as an eighteen track disc featuring music exclusive to three singles that preceded and followed the initial release of the album. Songs like "Hound Dog" and "Don't Be Cruel" and "Too Much" and "Playing For Keeps" which appear to have been orphaned originally from the albums, yet released right around the time of Elvis are added to this album to recapture the late '56/early '57 feel and sound of Elvis Presley.

And I say this is wonderful. Elvis, in its prior incarnation, topped out with "Love Me," which hit #2 on Billboard's pop chart, but didn't hit #1, despite the album being #1. With "Don't Be Cruel," "Hound Dog," "Love Me Tender," and "Too Much," the album actually carries some of Elvis Presley's most relevant and enduring hits and gives Elvis some real value beyond nostalgia.

With eighteen tracks clocking in at 44:48, Elvis represents one of the enduring works of Brand Elvis, a mysterious collection of actual talent and historical innuendo that has many conflicting versions. Elvis is credited with co-writing three tracks and there are rumors that because the album lacks a production credit, Elvis Presley might well have been involved with that. All that is definitive is that Presley provides the primary vocals for all eighteen tracks and he plays guitar on the album. Given that the bulk of the lyrics and music were inarguably not written by Presley, it opens the question of how much of Elvis is actually the work and vision of Elvis Presley.

Lyrically, it is hard to argue with the enduring power of those who created Elvis Presley the icon and it is fairly easy to see the lines broke through to the collective unconscious of the 1950s and beyond. Here at the beginning of the rock and roll era it is easy to forgive such simplistic rhyme schemes as "Love me true / All my dreams fulfilled / For my darlin' I love you / And I always will" ("Love Me Tender"). Sometimes, the simple works and Elvis sells his lines as the easy truth in his ballads.

Presley presents himself as a classic country artist or folk-rock artist with tracks like "Old Shep." Yes, "Old Shep" is the classic story-song of a man who loves his protective wonderful dog who needs to be put down. One of Presley's longer songs at 4:10, "Old Shep" makes the mindless rock qualities of "Long Tall Sally" and "Ready Teddy" almost forgivable. The song is pretty much destined to shock anyone who knows Presley by the reputation as opposed to the material.

Similarly, the bad boy image of Elvis Presley is absolutely shattered by the number of heartfelt ballads on Elvis. Lines like, "I've had nothing but sorrow / Since you said we were through . . . Every sweet thing that matters / Has been broken in two / All my dreams have been shattered / How's the world treating you" ("How's The World Treating You") make it near-impossible to see Elvis as the strong, uber masculine man's man he is painted as. One wonders why such a banal greaser view of Elvis persists when his material indicates a much more emotionally well-developed and civilized man. This is where history deserves to be shattered and Elvis goes quite some distance toward that end.

Sadly, songs like "Ready Teddy" also appear on Elvis. "Ready Teddy" is a song about rock and roll and getting up and dancing and it sets up the last fifty years of mindless dance tracks where the whole point is to get young people out swinging. With ridiculously lame lines like, "Ready ready ready ready ready / I'm a ready ready Teddy / . . . ready ready ready to rock and roll" ("Ready Teddy"), this is a track that history deserves to forget, yet remains immortalized now on compact disc.

History has been very kind to Elvis Presley in regards to the vocals. Iconic songs like "Hound Dog" and "Don't Be Cruel" paint Presley as the ultimate rocker of the 1950s. He's the bad boy of rock and one of the pioneers of what is fast, hip and danceable. Elvis presents a dramatically different view. Songs like "Love Me," "Any Way You Want Me" and "First In Line" present Elvis as more of a crooner in the tradition of Bobby Darren than what students of history are taught is Elvis Presley!

And Elvis has a strong, smooth voice on most of the tracks. Songs like "Love Me" do present Presley as a strong vocal artist with a voice and ability that one would have thought would have seriously undermined his bad boy image. After all, how could parents truly had a problem with "Love Me Tender," one of the iconic ballads of the rock and roll era and easily one of the best vocals Presley ever released? It boggles those of us who grew up in the '80s and beyond.

But even Presley's vocals are not terribly consistent. "Paralyzed" sacrifices Presley's trademark voice for something more reminiscent of the Big Bopper and "How Do You Think I Feel" has a light pop feel that is instantly evocative of Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue." That's not to say these Elvis Presley tracks are bad, but they are certainly unexpected for those of us approaching Elvis based on his street cred as a rock and roll artist.

And while Presley has a voice that he (mostly) uses, much of the music is less than inspired. Sure, there's the pure fun and complete embodiment of the Elvis image on tracks like "Too Much" (could be perfect if he didn't refer to a male lover as a "daddy," this is just creepy) and the easy breezy swinging feel of "Anyplace Is Paradise." These tracks have the experiments with guitar that made it a leading instrument for rock songs.

Most of Elvis is the very clear and obvious origins of the guitar/bass/drums sound that became the rock and roll bassline. The addition of piano on many tracks provide a jazz undertone to many of the songs and that, too works. Despite the limited duration of the tracks, Elvis has more musical diversity than some of the Elvis Presley albums I have heard.

Still, there are disturbing similarities between "Don't Be Cruel" and "Anyplace Is Paradise" (outside the tempo) and "Hound Dog" and "Ready Teddy." There are structural and tonal similarities through many of the ballads and this smacks of a lack of imagination, if not ability.

The worst musical moment, though, comes on "Hound Dog." Sure, it's a classic song, one of Elvis Presley's most enduring #1s, but how it got there surprises me today. Those who listen closely to "Hound Dog" will acknowledge that at any moment, there are at least two musical things going on. In the foreground, there is Elvis singing and the music to "Hound Dog." Sharing that space is a highly complicated syncopated clapping rhythm that is maintained with a diligence that would be enviable were it not for the fact that the result of the clapping sound is that frequently maintaining the patterns puts claps offbeat with the rest of the song! This has disturbed me from the first time I spun an Elvis disc recently and it does make me wonder why the beatline was so important to Elvis and/or his executive producers.

The truth is, though, that with the bonus tracks, Elvis remains a surprisingly strong and generally diverse album that deserves to be heard, at the very least. Elvis is establishes himself on Elvis as a performer who crosses rock, pop, country and r&b to make for an interesting aural experience that holds up better with the hits added than it originally would have.

The best track is the perfect "Love Me Tender," the low point is the lame "Ready Teddy."

For other works by Elvis Presley, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Elvis Presley
Elvis’ Christmas Album
30 #1 Hits


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the music reviews I have written!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
| | |

No comments:

Post a Comment