Review: Elvis Presley – Viva Elvis-The Album (RCA Legacy)
No doubt some will take to these reconstructions of famous Elvis Presley songs, while others will feel they’re bastardizations on par with Ted Turner’s colorization of movies. The truth lies somewhere in between. Presley’s iconic vocals have been lifted and recontextualized in modern arrangements augmented with new instrumental performances. The results are a great deal more radical than George and Giles Martin’s mashups of the Beatles catalog for Love. At times the rhythms will remind you of the monotonous dance floor beats of the Stars on 45 medleys, and Brendan O’Brien’s overbearing remake of “That’s Alright” borrows its dominant riff from Katrina and the Wave’s “Walking on Sunshine.”
Unlike Love, this feels less like a celebration than a tortured attempt to make Elvis relevant to twenty-first century ears. The shame of it is that Elvis’ original recordings still hold the magic laid into them fifty years ago, and much of what makes them special is lost in these translations. The contrast of hillbilly guitars and burning vocals is buried under mounds of modern studio sounds that compete with rather than amplify Elvis’ preternatural ferocity. Casting “Heartbreak Hotel” into a delta blues might be an interesting trick if the producer (O’Brien again) trusted listeners to stay entertained without adding sizzling Vegas horns. But he can’t help himself, or perhaps he can’t escape the live show’s demands. Serban Ghenea’s hyperbolic reworking of “Blue Suede Shoes” suffers the same fate, overwhelming both Elvis and the listener with studio pyrotechnics that are distracting rather than energizing.
The acoustic arrangement given “Love Me Tender” momentarily drops the album’s bombast, but Dea Norberg’s duet vocal doesn’t stand up to Elvis’ original. It’s not impossible to overlay an inspiring duet on Elvis – Celine Dion did so in a video performance of “If I Can Dream,” for example – but this is the wrong song and the arrangement is too sedate. Shelly St.-Germain fares better on “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” though the arrangement’s percussion distracts with its busyness. If you’ve been asking yourself “what would Elvis sound like if he were recording with a modern chart act,” perhaps these reworkings will help you imagine the answer. But even those few tracks that retain some of the originals’ joyousness, such as “Bossa Nova Baby,” fall to the disc’s hyperkinetic overdrive.
What might interest Elvis fans are the odd bits of continuity – studio dialog, radio announcers, film clips – used as production edgings. But unlike the rearranged instrumental lines of Love, these tracks are too radically reconstructed to play “where’d that come from?” No doubt this works well as a soundtrack to the live show; enjoyed in the round and visualized by circus acts, the CD will make a nice souvenir. But as a standalone offering it begs the question: why listen to someone else’s subtle-as-a-flying-mallet reconstructions when the heart of rock ‘n’ roll is still beating in the easily obtainable originals?