Friday, May 18, 2012

Elvis Remastered With Quantity To Overcome The Middling Quality: Elvis Presley

The Good: Some enjoyable lyrics, Fun and classic tunes, Generally fine vocals
The Bad: Musically limited, Short, Tracks are short
The Basics: Despite having some legitimate hits, this very short debut is fairly unimpressive on its own today. (Better discs have all of the songs from it as well).

I'm beginning to think that when the radio programs like "American Top 40" aired episodes in the 1950s (if it had been around, that is), the shows much have been very very short. This occurs to me as I continue my musical education/appreciation of Elvis Presley. Thus far, I've listened to and reviewed a compilation album, 30 #1 Hits (reviewed here!) and Elvis’ Christmas Album (reviewed here!) and now I am popping back to the beginning. Yes, I'm leaping back to the debut of Elvis Presley, the 1956 album Elvis Presley.

With eighteen tracks (now), clocking in at a pretty sad 42:30, Elvis Presley reflects both a shocking lack of Elvis and a startling lack of musical imagination. Consider, for example, that Elvis Presley was originally released in 1956 as a twenty-eight, three second record with only twelve tracks. Remastered for c.d., an additional six tracks were added to flesh it out to a more appropriate length given the medium's capacity.

On Elvis Presley, Elvis sings his songs, plays guitar and piano and he is credited (whether he actually did or not) with co-writing only "Heartbreak Hotel," one of the bonus tracks on the compact disc version of this album. And here at the beginning, Elvis Presley was surprisingly mellow and quiet and inauspicious. For sure, there is some potential to be seen in Elvis even on Elvis Presley, but just as I learned by listening to (and going through the liner notes of) Tina Turner's All The Best (reviewed here!), like Tina, Elvis is very much a construct of writers, producers and those who were feeling out the Industry. As a result, much of the album is not as interesting or enduring as some might like to think.

Indeed, one of the litmus tests I do for older albums is a pretty simple question: are the best tracks on later compilation albums? If an album is only held up by recognizable hits, I find it hard to recommend, regardless of the historical significance. Elvis Presley is one of those albums. After all, with its bonus tracks, this is the album that has "Heartbreak Hotel," "Blue Suede Shoes," "Shake, Rattle And Roll," and "My Baby Left Me." It also has the #1 "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You," and the single "I Was The One." It also has the songs "Blue Moon" and "Tutti Frutti," which were both made more popular by other musical artists. And each and every one of those tracks appears on a better compilation that is on the market.

And what of the rest, the tracks that virtually anyone who has studied history and music would not necessarily recognize? Well, with tracks like "I'll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin')" and "I Love You Because," Elvis seriously underwhelms listeners. There's a reason this is not an album where every track is instantly recognizable to the majority of people.

On Elvis Presley, Elvis sings mostly about simple, fun relationships with easy lyrics like "Well just because you think you're so pretty /And just because your mother thinks you're hot / And just because you think you've got something / That nobody else here has got / You cause me to spend all my money /. . . Well I'm telling you / Baby I'm through with you / Because, baby, just because" ("Just Because"). The lines are not necessarily all that sophisticated and they range from the simplest break up ("Just Because") to desire ("Blue Moon") to a general sense of loss and frustration ("One-Sided Love Affair"). Elvis is concerned about how he is being used "Money Honey" and being left, "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Cry (Over You)."

In this respect, it is somewhat surprising to those of us discovering early Elvis Presley in an age where all we've known is Elvis The Institution. Characterized as a man's man, Elvis on Elvis Presley is surprisingly emotionally fragile and real. After all, it's hardly the uber-masculine greaser who is able to get away with singing, "I'm gonna sit right down and cry over you / And if you ever say good-bye / If you ever evem try / I'm gonna sit right down and cry over you . . .I'm gonna tell my mama / Gonna tell my papa too . . . " ("I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Cry (Over You)").

And the remaster starts with some of the most recognizable lyrics ever sung in the rock and roll era with Elvis crooning out, "Well since my baby left me / I've found a new place to dwell / Down at the end of lonely street / At the Heartbreak Hotel" ("Heartbreak Hotel"). "Heartbreak Hotel" is a very specific time and place in music history and hearing it now, the listener is able to see why it was popular, if not so big in launching the career of Elvis Presley.

The main problem with the lyrics is that all of the songs are so short! None of the themes in the lines are particularly well developed. The songs often repeat themselves twice and the song ends. Boom. It's that quick.

Musically, Elvis Presley is shockingly limited. Those who want to imagine Elvis breaking onto the music scene with a powerful new sound and feel are in for a bit of a shock. Having listened to early popular folk-rock music like that of Bob Dylan, Elvis hardly seems audacious. Indeed, with songs like "Trying To Get To You" and "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Cry (Over You)" Elvis sounds more like a follower of the trends that were current in popular music at the time.

Song like "Just Because" sound surprisingly poppy in comparison to the rock and roll classics like "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Tutti Frutti," but the aural problem with the very short Elvis Presley is that virtually all of the tracks have a similar guitar and drums or piano and drums sound fronted by the voice of Elvis Presley. The guitar on Elvis Presley is used almost like a folk instrument keeping time as opposed to developing complicated melodies or harmonies.

Perhaps the most musically interesting track is "Heartbreak Hotel," which has the guitars and piano playing off one another. There are no other songs on the album that have quite that richness, save perhaps "Money Honey," which lacks the emotional resonance of the other track. By today's standards neither are terribly intricate or impressive.

As a result, most of the tracks on Elvis Presley sound similar because Elvis presents his songs in virtually identical ways. Sure, there are fast and slow tracks, but for the most part, this is Elvis singing clearly and directly, each track evoking the mental image of a crooner in a dark room singing just to the listener. Musically, this becomes boring, especially over multiple listens. Save the more Hawaiian sounding "I'm Counting On You," these tracks tend to sound very standard pop-rock, even if they were setting those standards.

Indeed, far more disappointing than anything lyrically is the way that Elvis stays in a very safe baritone range from the more country "Trying To Get To You" to the ballad "Heartbreak Hotel." On this album, Elvis errs on the side of safe and coherent sung lines which are decent in their articulation, but do not illustrate much of the potential in the performer. Even when his songs start out sounding like they might overwhelm Elvis's voice, like "I've Got A Woman," Elvis pulls it out at the key points to keep his musical story forefront in the listener's ears.

The result is that Elvis Presley is a fine historical document, but it lacks the resonance to be truly interesting and entertaining as an album today. It's far too short - even with the bonus tracks - to be considered a great use of the c.d. medium. Truth be told, there are several anthologies that have the entire album (in a different order) on it and the serious Elvis fan will probably want that instead. But for those just getting into Elvis, Elvis Presley is surprisingly slow and quiet and musically dull.

The best track is the strangely mellow and quiet "Blue Moon," the lowest point might well be the sexist "I Got A Woman."

For other, former, Artist Of The Month selections, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Aladdin Sane - David Bowie
Rumours (2-disc version) - Fleetwood Mac
Ella Fitzgerald Celebrated - Ella Fitzgerald


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

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