Sunday, July 15, 2012

Ugh! Elvis As Elevator Music: The Castaway Strings Play The Elvis Presley Songbook Poorly.

The Good: The novelty for the first listen
The Bad: Boring, Largely atonal, Terrible selection of pieces, SHORT!
The Basics: The Castaway Strings phone in a lousy collection of songs, some of which barely sound like the tunes they are intended to represent.

Every now and then I encounter a product that when I sit down to write about it, I am forced to ask myself, "How little can I write about this and still pull off a very helpful review?" There are works I will pan and gladly write pages and pages of critique on as I tear it apart and advise my readers strongly to avoid. Then, there are things like The Castaway Strings Play The Elvis Presley Songbook, a disc I discovered at my local library when searching for music of Elvis Presley to review. Like the Joni Mitchell tribute album Came Upon A Child Of God that I discovered a while back that was terrible, The Castaway Strings Play The Elvis Presley Songbook is an abysmal album that wants to capitalize on the success of Elvis Presley by reimagining his works in another style.

In this case, that style is elevator music.

I wish I were kidding. But, alas and alack The Castaway Strings Play The Elvis Presley Songbook is an eleven track compact disc that clocks in at right around a half hour of muzak. Robbed of the lyrics, conductor and musical arranger Bill Finnegan illustrates the horrors likely to come when other popular music enters the public domain in the years following the death of other influential musical artists. Scored from early-'50's works of Elvis Presley, The Castaway Strings Play The Elvis Presley Songbook presents instrumental versions of largely recognizable songs made popular by Elvis Presley.

And it's hard to muster up the enthusiasm to write much more about this disc. While one might get instantly excited to see that some old favorites like "Hound Dog," "Love Me Tender" and "Don't Be Cruel" are available on the disc one needs to understand just how bad this presentation is to be dissuaded from buying it.

First, this disc employs a fairly full orchestra to reimagine some of Presley's songs. This has moments where it is actually clever or decent, like using a brass section for the refrain of "Return To Sender." Or, there's . . . . no, that's the only moment of clever music I can find here. I suffered through eight listens to this album and I'm not condemning myself to another, even for purposes of review.

The truth is, beginning the first listen, there was some novelty to the disc. After weeks of drowning in the crooning of Elvis Presley, it was refreshing to hear some of the tunes without his vocals. No lyrics, no voice, no lines . . . but by the time track five came along it was pretty much all over for me. Those who have read my reviews on the works of Elvis Presley might note that at virtually every opportunity to praise "Love Me Tender," I leap on that action. It's a truly great song and one of the songs that I've memorized fastest in my life due to its simplicity. It is a brilliant combination of simplicity and soul and I'm not sure if I'll ever get sick of that song.

Track five on The Castaway Strings Play The Elvis Presley Songbook is their version of "Love Me Tender" and it is unrecognizable. I mean, at the peak of my obsession with the song, I popped in this disc and when that song came up, I did not recognize it. To be fair, there is little instrumental melody to "Love Me Tender;" every version I've heard relies on the strength of Elvis's vocals to present the music. But here it's an atonal nightmare (I feel I am writing that phrase so frequently these days it is beginning to lose all meaning!) and it makes me cringe every time it comes up in the rotation.

Almost as bad is "Hound Dog," which opens the album. As annoying as the syncopated, occasionally off-beat percussion in Presley's "Hound Dog" is, the lack of it on the track here is even worse.

Moreover, Finnegan and his orchestra make a critical mistake that Presley somehow and his producers managed to more or less avoid when assembling his albums: they put a number of tracks with essentially the same tune on the same album and rather close to one another. Ever notice how "Hound Dog," "All Shook Up" and "Don't Be Cruel" all have essentially the same tune? Ever notice how "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Return To Sender" sound a lot alike in their refrains? If you haven't before, hearing them within minutes of one another will wake you up to it with this disc!

Yes, the true problem here is that The Castaway Strings Play The Elvis Presley Songbook utilizes a terrible variety of Presley's songs that even though some use more woodwinds or others use more brass or some are arranged with strings dominating, the essential tunes are more or less the same. This is like listening to an album of all Elvis Presley ballads. Sure there are some great ones, but if you listen to them back to back, you'll catch that they are essentially the same three songs rearranged and with different lyrics. This album cannot hide that and it makes one wince to hear it all.

Even worse is the arrangement on the actual album. It's one thing to have songs that sound alike on the same album, but The Castaway Strings Play The Elvis Presley Songbook puts the tracks that generally use the same aspects of the orchestra together on the album. So while a decent brass section is used on "Return To Sender," the album also uses the same general level of brass on "Don't Be Cruel" and "It's Now Or Never," while the first few tracks are virtually devoid of brass.

Even fans of Elvis Presley will not find this album indispensable. It is a collection of poorly conceived musical renditions of songs that are much better and much stronger in other forms. For sure, creativity ought to be rewarded, but this endeavor seems far less creative and far more exploitative, like here was a group desperate to cash in on the popularity of Elvis Presley without truly showing any musical instinct or insight. Perhaps the best analogy is that this album sounds like one might imagine an average high school band putting together when there was a bulk sale on Elvis Presley sheet music.

Can an orchestral version of Presley's music be pulled off well? I imagine it can. This is not it, though. The only truly bearable track is "Return To Sender," the rest is utterly unredeemable.

For works by the actual 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
Today, Tomorrow, And Forever
Heart And Soul
King Of Rock: The Complete 50's Masters
Love Songs
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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