Monday, December 23, 2013

What's New?: 12.23.2013

Hey, as you may have noticed, the installments of WN? have been skimpy in this second half of 2013 (just looking now, the last one I did was in freakin' July — early July, at that).  You might be guessing that's because I haven't bought any records — which is definitely not the case.  I've been accumulating quite a bit, but to spare you the tedious details, I've had things that have kept me from writing all that much.  It's not that I haven't wanted to, I just haven't been able to for whatever reason.  So, as I tend to do, I went on many tangents with my interests and gorged on certain bands, artists and styles.  Because I have a large enough backlog of things to discuss (all of which I definitely want to get to), I've decided to go forth with WN? not in the chronological order of how I acquired things (which is always how it's been done up until this point), but by grouping things together by artist, affiliations or similar styles.  This is how things will go at least until I catch up.

So, back to business, let's start with a guy named AARON:
Elvis Presley — How Great Thou Art (1967)

This album was recorded right before Elvis tried to stage a full on comeback and throw in his bid to be considered a serious musician again. It's alright. I'm the last person to even pretend I like religious music (well, intentionally religious music, I should say), so my main interest in this album comes from Elvis' career trajectory.  I think I'm at a point where I've heard just about enough about the "important" psychedelic music of the late 60's to where I find a bit more meaning in the stuff that's not really retroactively "cool."  What was Elvis doing?  He was in a completely different mindset (the pop charts will do that to you).  Musically, if you can listen past the religiousness of this album (which I can, sometimes), it's definitely got a great orchestral pop sound to it. Sure, it's a bit cheesy in retrospect, but so is just about everything Elvis did.  At least it's well-intentioned and executed cheese.  This album came after a long run of mostly forgettable soundtracks to mostly forgettable movies, so maybe Elvis was glad to be doing something —anything— different with this one.  Because at least he sounds inspired in spots.  Do I listen to this album a lot?  No.  But I certainly don't mind it when I put it on.  As a listening experience, it leaves something to be desired, but as turning point in Elvis' career, it's far more interesting past being just an album of religious songs.

Elvis Presley — Elvis at Sun (mid 1950's)

It's easy to overlook these recordings in the bigger scheme of things, but it's impossible to overstate their importance. You can get into as many "he stole it!" discussions as you like, but the only thing that remains constant is that the man knew how to sing a damn song. Time has revealed that there were probably better rockabilly recordings made, but if you want that big reverby sound and that classic slapback bass, there's not much better than something like 'Blue Moon of Kentucky.' I think, more than anything, as many times as I've heard these songs, I don't think I ever noticed just how prevalent and how good the ballads are.  None of this is more evident than on the excellent rendition of 'Blue Moon.'  This disc isn't everything Elvis recorded for Sun, but for a cheap, one stop shop, you can't do much better.

Elvis Presley — self-titled (1956)

These Legacy editions actually combine two albums into one package: the album that's being advertised and material recorded either during the same sessions or surrounding sessions.  The album that accompanies Elvis' first self-titled RCA album is the album simply titled Elvis from the following year (but which was recorded during many of the same sessions).  The indisputable classics here are so plentiful, you can't count them on one hand: 'Blue Suede Shoes,' 'Blue Moon,' 'Heartbreak Hotel,' 'Tutti Frutti,' 'Don't be Cruel' and 'Hound Dog,' just to name some.  It's kind of nice to go back to these early albums and see how relatively tame they are in retrospect.  And, you know, like I said up there, the ballads are really killer.  Elvis' early stuff wasn't really popular for ballads, so the ones that are spread across these two discs have a bit of unfamiliarity for me, which really makes them stick out.  Check out 'First in Line' and 'Any Way You Want Me.'  Otherwise, the two albums and surrounding material on these two discs are definitely of historic importance, but more than anything else, they're very easy listening.  I'll put one on while I'm making dinner or just wanting to jam along with something on guitar and before I know it, I've listened to the whole thing.  Something to be said about that.

Elvis Presley — Elvis is Back! (early 1960's)

The title on this one is a reference to Elvis' stint in the army.  The music is still pretty consistent, but this is considered to be the last thoroughly good album Elvis would do for the next six or seven years.  Most of the songs here feature a much slicker presentation, there's a whole lot more ballads and the Jordanaires are backing Elvis up on just about every track, so they had definitely found the formula that worked, but the results aren't quite as interesting.  Still, this does have one of the best songs ever on it and it's exactly in that mode, so it's not all bad.  The companion album included in this Legacy package is 1961's Something for Everyone and that's a seeming reference to how the album is divided into two sides: the first half is more pop ballad driven, while the second half is more on the rockin' side of things.  There were practically no big hits on this album, so the unfamiliarity of the material is the big draw for me.  Check out 'Put the Blame on Me' and the rocker 'Little Sister' for some pretty badass tunes that have gone nearly unnoticed for anyone except Elvis diehards.  As an overview of what Elvis was up to in the early 60's, it's pretty thorough in presenting the good side of the picture.  Unfortunately, he would get stuck in the cycle of making movies and having maybe one good song to build a soundtrack album around for the next several years.

Elvis Presley — Loving You (1957)

Elvis' first movie soundtrack was recorded when he was still working with a wealth of great material and, indeed, most of the material here isn't actually from the movie.  Some really killer stuff though: 'Lonesome Cowboy' finds the Jordanaires being used to their maximum potential, while 'Mean Woman Blues' is about as rockin' as this album gets (still a great tune).  This one's a little up and down, but it does have quite a few easy-to-like blues rockers like 'Blueberry Hill' so no real complaints.  Falls right in with the first two RCA albums in terms of sound and production, so a lot of the material gets by just on the classic presentation, not necessarily its strength.

Elvis Presley — From Elvis in Memphis (1969)

This is the famous comeback album, where Elvis finally branched out beyond his inner circle of songwriters and musicians (a circle that existed to keep publishing money close — most of the publishing on this album did not come back to that inner circle).  The change to outside folks does wonders and really shows how good Elvis could be with the right material.  The sound the music takes on is a sort of countrified pop soul — the type that Memphis was pumping out rapid fire in those days.  Of course Elvis was more of a country boy by this point, so to have him belting it out like a country crooner while the band is firmly planted in r+b (with a slight twang) really makes for some unique moments.  Check out 'Long Black Limousine' for a pretty hip tune.  The companion album on this one is Elvis Back in Memphis from the same year.  Both albums actually came from the same sessions, so this two disc document is pretty invaluable.  And the important thing here is worth repeating: putting Elvis with different songwriters did wonders for his music career.  There's a ton of hits throughout these two discs: 'Suspicious Minds', 'In the Ghetto', 'Gentle on My Mind' (my personal favorite) and 'Rubberneckin'.'  Hits or no, this is fantastic music and there's plenty of lesser-known songs like 'Kentucky Rain' that keep me coming back to this set.  Probably my favorite Elvis stuff, when it's all said and done.

Elvis Presley — Elvis Country (1971)

And, as the title indicates, Elvis goes full on pop country for these sessions (which were indeed cut in Nashville). Or, that was the intention anyway. It actually sounds like a more fully produced continuation of the pop/rockabilly sound Elvis was doing about ten years previous. The original twelve song album Elvis Country is here at the start of disc one and pieces of the excellent non-album single 'I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago' are spliced in between the proper songs and it creates a really effective atmosphere for the album.  The thing here is that the music's presentation is very slick and overproduced.  So, yeah, it's pretty cheesy.  But, it's good cheese because Elvis completely means it.  Some good tunes from the album are 'I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water', 'Funny How Time Slips Away' (dobro solo!) and 'Make the World Go Away' (which is the sort of over-saturated Elvis sound that would become cliched within a year of this album — this is a good one, though).  The companion album recorded during the same sessions is Love Letters From Elvis and while it doesn't hold together as well as disc one, it's still got a bunch of great tunes: the pop soul of 'If I Were You' and the lush ballad 'I'll Never Know' are clear highlights.  These sessions were pretty much Elvis' last artistic hurrah.  He fell back into the cycle of performing second and third rate material to keep his publishing money close and basically got lazy.  The cool thing about this particular period of Elvis was his super schmaltzy live show.  He would do these ridiculous onstage movements and the band would have to follow along and accentuate his antics and he would direct the band to do things just because he could — but if you watch any footage of him performing during this period, you have to marvel at how good the bands he was working with actually were to be able to entertain his shenanigans.  And Elvis, even when he's singing songs he knows are crap, is always at least having fun.  And that counts for something, I suppose.


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