In our recent poll a lot of people showed a desire for reviews of older, original albums. This time we take a closer look on an album that has been overlooked by BMG in their recent re-re-releases.
In 1975 Dave Marsh wrote for Rolling Stone Magazine the following review:
Elvis Presley is the greatest singer in the history of rock & roll. As each of his frustratingly mediocre albums appears, we are forcibly reminded of that fact. There is almost nothing on any of them to keep us listening. But I have never heard an Elvis record which didn't reveal something about the man and his capacities and therefore, somehow, about everyone's. Instinctively and accidentally, Presley's product (with no other artist does that term have such resonance) teaches us what charisma means.
Elvis throws away the best line on Today—"Have a laugh on me, I can help"—with what seems to be transparent smugness. The words invite the dismissal of everything on the record but, as always, there is a catch.
Today catalogs perfectly the undeniable stylistic and creative decline of every Sun artist, makes us realize how much more than a match Elvis was for them and how canny he has been in avoiding the burnout. (If he has done it by fizzling out, that does not necessarily lessen the achievement. Name someone else who has been able to remain continuously fascinating for 20 years.)
Superficially, nearly every song on this album would have been better off in the hands of one of the other Sun singers, or one of Presley's latter-day imitators. "T-R-O-U-B-L-E," the latest chart number, is made for Jerry Lee Lewis. It begs Elvis to romp, stomp and rip it to shreds. He declines the honor, but not without giving an indication, here and there, that he could if he wanted to. In his refusal, we can see simultaneously the genius of Presley and Colonel Parker in avoiding the issue, and the brilliance of Lewis, the only Sun artist who has retained any of his power with something like consistency.
"I Can Help" is perhaps more suited to Presley's peculiar talents than any other song in the last decade. It is a gauntlet thrown, and he picks it up without reluctance. But with such a twist! Here is a song meant to evoke everything the early Memphis sound meant, and what does he do with it? He takes it to Vegas. Only a truly inspired—or truly arrogant — man would have had the thought, much less the courage, to carry it through.
"Pieces of My Life" is actually the song Charlie Rich now uses to close his debilitated live performances. Presley's version is no less banal, but it is somehow richer. Anyone who has ever thought Rich might be the man to match Elvis's voice—I confess the heresy — will find his hopes (or fears) dashed here. "Susan When She Tried" is pure Johnny Cash. And with "Green, Green Grass of Home," Elvis, with his usual lack of commitment, manages to mock not only Tom Jones but the very idea of a return home (even to Memphis, source of his fertility).
Bruce Springsteen sums it up perfectly, just before rocking into a version of "Wear My Ring around Your Neck" that might make the master smile. "There have been contenders," he says, "there have been pretenders. But there is only one king." Long may he reign.
Actually, the reign didn't last much longer after this album, at least not with new recordings. Honestly we can't disagree with Dave Marsh. Indeed with "T-R-O-U-B-L-E", even from a fan's point of view, there is a feeling like "it's good, but it could have been better". "I Can Help" is indeed one of the highlights of the album and the comments on the other tracks are not way beyond truth too. But what about the tracks that Marsh didn't write about? Where they too bad to be mentioned, or couldn't he come up with a (Sun) artist to compare?
"And I Love You So", which was a hit for Perry Como, written by Don McLean, in 1973, is a beautiful ballad, different from the usual "I'm lonely and I miss you" ballads Elvis used to do in the 70's. Like "Fairytale", written by the Pointer Sisters, it was done live often until his death. The latter song is one of the better tracks on the album, a nice country feel that fitted Elvis perfectly. "Woman Without Love" is not spectacular, like the single "T-R-O-U-B-L-E" written by Jerry Chesnut. The oldie "Shake a Hand" doesn't come close to the bootlegged live version of the song, but still a lot of fans regard it as one of the better tracks of the album. Unfortunately they are probably right, it is reflecting the somewhat mediocre level of most of Elvis' 70's albums. The last track not mentioned before, "Bringin' It Back" was written by Greg Gordon. All we can say is that we understand that Dave Marsh didn't take the time to mention it.
The album was recorded at RCA's studios in Hollywood, March 10-12, 1975. Elvis' regular live band was present, but it is remarkable that Duke Bardwell's bass was erased from most tracks (except "T-R-O-U-B-L-E", because it was rushed out as single) and replaced by Mike Leech and Norbert Putnam. Elvis was mad at RCA after the first rough mixes and forced them to redo everything at Nashville.
The final result is one of Elvis' better albums from the 70's, but not because of its own strength.