Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Obscure Elvis Is Unmemorable Elvis: Today, Tomorrow, And Forever

The Good: Moments of musical originality, Historical value
The Bad: A number of poor recordings, Lack of vocal diversity, Some lyrics.
The Basics: A massive and rather disappointing collection of outtakes and obscure Elvis Presley songs has historical value, but little lasting appeal.

Right now, I am a bit sick of the music of Elvis Presley. I have been on a pretty steady musical diet of Elvis Presley for the last month and considering most of it has been in the form of his early works and giant boxed sets, like The King Of Rock: The Complete 50's Masters, listening to his works over and over and over again has become a draining experience. This is made even more painful by the boxed set collection Elvis: Today, Tomorrow and Forever, a collection of outtakes and rare performances.

In my experience, this collection is most analogous to the Bob Dylan collection Biograph as it contains a boatload of unreleased and alternate-take recordings. How significant are these recordings? I suppose that depends on what one's definition of "significant" is. Presentations in this set range from a seven song concert presented in Little Rock in 1956 to the only known alternate take to "Rip It Up" (which isn't all that spectacular in any form) to a rehearsal track duet of "A Thing Called Love" with Armond Morales which was buried on the charts when Johnny Cash beat Elvis to the market with the same song! As it stands, the collection catalogues the entire timeline of Presley's career with unreleased and alternate tracks from up until 1976, making it intriguing for those who adore the performances of Elvis Presley and cannot get enough of his works.

With four discs and almost five hours of music, Today, Tomorrow & Forever is a one hundred track collection of songs that span the career of Elvis Presley but are almost never associated with him. As a result, any number of obscure tracks appear in this collection without a whole lot of the ones that made Presley famous. So, for example, there is no outtake or alternate version of "Love Me Tender" or "Viva Las Vegas" in this collection, but there is an alternate version of "My Desert Serenade" from "Harum Scarum." Yes, I shudder to think they bothered to record that song more than once.

What Today, Tomorrow, & Forever feels like is a desperate attempt to clear out the archives of anything Elvis related and make a buck on it. So, for example, on disc two, there are a number of tracks that involve Presley or his engineers restarting a take. On "Flaming Star," "G.I. Blues" and "Make Me Know It," (among others) Presley and/or the instrumentals begin and then cut out before restarting. As a result, much of the collection has a feel of being a collection of process stories. We hear Presley tell his backup singers they aren't getting overtime if they delay, so it's time to get going and a charming bit preceding one track where Presley says he's just thrown up a little on a line (on "(That's What You Get) For Lovin' Me").

Yes, parts of this collection have Presley at his most charming. We hear him nervous introducing some of the live tracks and it's refreshing to hear him make cracks about how some of his music was denigrated because of its association as "black music." Presley makes some tongue-in-cheek remarks about his songs being popular in the U.S. and parts of Africa and that level of upfront social rebellion against the status quo of the Fifties and sixties is refreshing to hear.

Today, Tomorrow & Forever is a rather diverse collection in terms of material. While it does have some of Presley's early standards, like "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Hound Dog," there are also songs not associated with the rock and roll Elvis. Songs like "Snowbird" and "Where Could I Go But To The Lord?" come from Presley's career branching off into pure country and gospel music endeavors. The result is that moments of this collection actually sound quite different and fresh compared to collections that take from only one period in Presley's career. Presley's gospel songs sound dramatically different from his rock and roll tracks and his country songs.

Unfortunately, many of Presley's rock and roll tracks sound alike and so, too, do many of his gospel and country tracks sound like one another. Elvis country sounds like Elvis country, Presley's gospel songs seem to all have a similar resonance and cadence. In other words, when Presley finds a musical niche, he creates a sound in that genre and keeps it very consistently, at least as his recordings are presented on the discs of Today, Tomorrow & Forever.

When Presley sings slow and sad, he tends to sound less versatile; so, for example, "I Was The One" - an early rock and roll ballad - sounds remarkably like "Until It's Time For You To Go" a much later folk ballad. Indeed, the most truly diverse songs on the album are the duets that pop up occasionally. "A Thing Called Love" and Presley's duet with Ann-Margaret, Today, Tomorrow & Forever have a different flavor than the many tracks with Presley or Presley backed by the Jordanaires.

Musically, this is a strangely undiverse collection. Most of the tracks have a rather produced sound to them and come down to Presley with his guitar or Presley accompanied by just a piano. There is a stark quality to many of the tracks that allows one to immediately image Presley in a recording studio as opposed to on stage or in any sort of live performance setting. The tracks have a quality that make them feel like they are largely unfinished and in process as opposed to strong and ready. In other words, this is a collection largely of alternate takes and they sound like alternate takes from the inclusion of producers commenting when Presley gets something right to musicians or Presley restarting the songs.

This is an academic collection. It is intriguing for those who are fans, but has little inspired musical value on its own. Having listened to each disc no less than eight times apiece, it is easy to get bored with this. What is intriguing on the first listen becomes blase by the third. What might thrill fans who are tired of the studio versions of classic or obscure Presley-sung tracks are of little distinction to those who are not so obsessed with him or his works.

It is hard to imagine that this collection would even survive long in high rotation of an Elvis fan's collection, despite the diversity and initial intrigue of the works.

The best track is "A Thing Called Love" and I'm not even hazarding a worst track for this collection, for a change.

For other works by Elvis Presley, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Elvis Presley
Loving You
Elvis’ Golden Records
Elvis’ Christmas Album
King Creole
For LP Fans Only
A Date With Elvis
50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong: Elvis’ Gold Records Volume 2
30 #1 Hits


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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