Saturday, May 5, 2012

Okay, Elvis Rocks. 30 #1 Hits Pretty Much Proves That.

The Good: Some truly amazing songs with good lyrics, music and vocals
The Bad: Some terribly lame rhymes, lyrics, disappointing music or vocals
The Basics: Elvis's hits from the obvious ("It's Now Or Never") to the obscure ("(Marie's The Name) His Latest Flame") are compiled in one worthwhile collection!

One of the things I truly love about writing reviews is that it encourages me to encourage my education. My musical and cinematic education has steadily increased as I've written reviews and I stretch myself to explore artists that are new to me, classic artists and/or legends in their fields who may be overblown. After a year of reviewing the likes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Oasis, I decided it was time to go somewhere I hadn't yet gone and here I shall confess that up until this week, I had never heard a full Elvis Presley recording before.

I decided to pop my Elvis cherry the opposite way of how I usually go about reviewing an artist. My standard form is to try to find the earliest work possible and work my way up through their discs from earliest to latest. With Elvis, I wanted to start right out with a "Best of" album because I wanted to see what all the hype was truly about. With that intent, I picked up 2002's compilation album, Elvis 30 #1 Hits. And from this, yes, it's hard to deny that Elvis rocked.

30 #1 Hits presents 31 tracks over 79:36 minutes and the bonus track is technically a JXL track that utilizes "A Little Less Conversation" as the full sample for the song. Regardless, this is a generally strong anthology of Elvis Presley's music spanning from his first #1 hit, "Heartbreak Hotel" to his final UK #1s,"Way Down" and the JXL hit "A Little Less Conversation." What immediately strikes the new-to-Elvis listener is how little of Elvis is Elvis Presley. Out of his thirty #1 hits on this album, Elvis co-wrote only four and they were all in his earliest works!

Elvis is a manufactured construct, a performer far more than an artist and this compilation robs the listener of the information to determine just how much of Elvis is the creative work of Elvis Presley. If he played any instruments on any of these tracks, it is a mystery to me; the liner notes do not include references to him playing guitar on any of the songs. Moreover, there is no reference to Elvis taking any form of production credit for any of the songs on 30 #1 Hits.

But, what the listener gets is a pretty decent time capsule of the musical career of Elvis Presley, spanning his earliest hits through his final ones. Listening to this album, one hears a clear evolution of vocals, music, and lyrics that transcends simple pop-rock. Moreover, this collection utilizes both British and U.S. pop-rock charts to determine the #1s included. It is interesting to note that only six Elvis songs hit #1 in both the U.S. and U.K. They were: "All Shook Up," "Jailhouse Rock," "It's Now Or Never," "Are You Lonesome Tonight?," "Surrender," and "Good Luck Charm." For those growing up more or less after the death of Elvis, songs like "Surrender" and "Good Luck Charm" might baffle us for their popularity. They lack the historical resonance of "Jailhouse Rock" or "Love Me Tender" or other iconic Elvis songs, yet they hit #1 and did so in both the U.S. and U.K.

The thing is, outside the hype and history, 30 #1 Hits is a much more shaky album than some would like to admit. Lyrically, what made Elvis an icon is a strange combination of heartfelt and longing ("Love Me Tender") and ridiculous and annoying ("Hard Headed Woman"). Take, for example, Elvis's "Love Me Tender," one of the few songs he co-wrote that had a decent stint at #1 (five weeks in the United States). In the heartfelt ballad, Elvis sings, "Love me tender / Love me sweet / Never let me go / You have made my life complete / And I love you so . . . Love me true / All my dreams fulfilled / For my darling I love you / And I always will" ("Love Me Tender"). Elvis reveals a genuine sense of soul and longing and the power of his emotions is impressive for such a masculine icon, especially from the 1950s! And the song resonates even today because it carries a message that is sad and universal and worthwhile.

He has similar themes on "Don't," which he had no part in writing. That song wonderfully has the lines, "When I feel like this / And I want to kiss you / Baby don't say don't / . . . Don't leave my embrace / For here in my arms / Is your place / When the night grows cold / And I want to hold you / Baby don't say don't" ("Don't"). Okay, lyrically, it might sound sexist, but Elvis's vocals make it sound sexy! He sings it with a whispered desire that is charming and mesmerizing and carries a charisma that is pretty incredible.

These contrast with songs like the ridiculous "Hard Headed Woman" and the childish "Wooden Heart." Whereas "Don't" and "Love Me Tender" have an emotional sophistication to them, "Hard Headed Woman" sings a sexist and lame history of how women have negatively influenced men, with lines like "I heard about a king who was doing swell / until he started playing with that evil Jezebel / Oh yeah, ever since the world began . . ." And while "Wooden Heart" might have a worthwhile message of "don't hurt me because I'm human," it does it with particularly banal rhymes like, "Can't you see I love you / Please don't break my heart in two / That's not hard to do . . ."

Musically, 30 #1 Hits is a diverse album and Elvis and his music has some truly wonderful moments and some real low points. I became very disturbed in listening to this album on high rotation that "Hound Dog" is such a noisy song. The song is academically sophisticated, but aurally problematic. The themes and vocals are set in front of an elaborate syncopated clapping rhythm. The problem with the song is that the clapping is something of a constant and as a result often the clapping is off-rhythm with the music and vocals.

This is the most extreme example; most of the songs have great catchy harmonies and keep the music flowing with a strong guitar/bass/drums sound. Many tracks add keyboards or pianos as support instruments and they work rather well. Elvis dares to go more orchestral with songs like "In The Ghetto," a story-song that works surprisingly well to raise a social conscious issue. Elvis's songs on this album range from the straight out classic rock and roll sound that helped define the genre, like "Hound Dog," "Don't Be Cruel," and "Jailhouse Rock" to soft ballads ("Are You Lonesome Tonight?") to pop-rock that is surprisingly light, like "All Shook Up" and "(Marie's The Name) His Latest Flame."

Musically, the problem with this album is that it reveals a musical weakness in the works of Elvis Presley, which is that many of the songs sound like one another. Sure, years separated the release of "Love Me Tender," "Don't" and "She's Not You," but they appear here minutes away from one another and it's impossible to deny all three ballads use mostly the same theme and structure. Similarly, "Don't Be Cruel," "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear," and "(Marie's The Name) His Latest Flame" all sound alike.

This is not a bad thing entirely. For example, "Suspicious Minds" and "Burning Love" both share a more produced sound and that reveals Elvis's adapting to the late-60s and early 70s. The other problem is more utilizing the same notes/themes and making songs sound similar.

Vocally, Elvis maintains a pretty wonderful consistency throughout the entirety of the album. His vocals are almost always the frontpiece of the track and he sings fairly clearly and articulately on all of the #1s compiled here. In fact, outside the pretty terrible "Hard Headed Woman," the lines are all very clear.

As an Elvis virgin, perhaps it was more surprising what songs never hit #1 than some of the ones that did. Notably absent to a student of history is "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Shake, Rattle, And Roll." I suppose the '50s had something very different going on that those songs never hit #1, but "Hard Headed Woman" would!

Those of us who hear Elvis songs on the radio now will be surprised to hear tracks like "One Night," "A Big Hunk O' Love" (no, comrades, this IS different from "Burning Love!"), "Surrender," and "The Wonder Of You," which are largely neglected on U.S. oldies stations. As a result, this becomes a rather valuable compilation, despite its musical repetitiveness. I will say it was wonderful to hear the original "Can't Help Falling In Love" and those of us who grew up on the insufferable UB40 cover might find something to actually enjoy here.

The best track is either the sensual "Love Me Tender" or the brash "Burning Love," the low points have to be "Hard Headed Woman" or the strangely unmemorable "Surrender."

For other artists who are contemporaries of Elvis, be sure to check out my reviews of:
It Ain't Easy: Essential Recordings - Wilson Pickett
Bridge Over Troubled Water - Simon & Garfunkel
Rumours (2-Disc version) – Fleetwood Mac


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for all of the albums and singles I have reviewed!

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

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