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Saturday, January 18, 2020

King Crimson: THRAK

KING CRIMSON: THRAK (1995)

1) VROOOM; 2) Coda: Marine 475; 3) Dinosaur; 4) Walking On Air; 5) BʼBoom; 6) THRaK; 7) Inner Garden I; 8) People; 9) Radio I; 10) One Time; 11) Radio II; 12) Inner Garden; 13) Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream; 14) VROOOM VROOOM; 15) VROOOM VROOOM: Coda.

General verdict: A slightly cellulitish variant of King Crimson for the Grunge Age — but the mix of nostalgia with then-current production trends still works fine for me.


No band has ever proven itself to be so adaptable to each new musical time period as King Crimson has — that is, of course, if we are talking intelligent adaptations that still allow the music to be easily recognizable and identifiable, while at the same time reflecting and honoring the most serious new musical developments of each period. But as years, and decades, went by, adaptation to new musical developments became harder — simply because it became harder to identify these new developments. And it is not merely old age that has resulted in a lack of properly «iconic» new albums from King Crimson past their third (or was that fourth?) traditional resurrection. It is also the fact that in 1994-95, it was not exactly clear who could serve as Frippʼs new source of inspiration. Last time we checked, it was Talking Heads. But in the mid-1990s? Kurt Cobain? Black Francis? Alanis Morissette?

Still, far be it from us to suggest that Frippʼs brain cells might have gotten too rusty or confused in a period which was, after all, more or less the very last hooray period for rock music in general. On the formal scale, change was reflected in the adoption of a «Double Trio» format — all the players from the Discipline lineup were back, but now augmented with a second bassist (Trey Gunn, an actual graduate of Frippʼs Guitar Craft school) and a second drummer (Pat Mastelotto); apparently, Fripp had acquired this love for weird symmetries, or, perhaps, it was just a part of his evil plan to tone down the presence and influence of Bruford, who was almost supposed not to be part of this new show, but allegedly shamed Robert into letting him back in.

On the substantial scale, the very title of the album (THRAK), as well as that of the mini-album which preceded it with several alternate versions of the same songs (VROOOM), already sort of suggests something fairly brutal and violent — and while it would be pushing things way too far to call this phase King Crimsonʼs «grunge period», I am absolutely certain that the grunge and alt-rock explosion of the early 1990s could not have gone unnoticed by the man who had already, to a large degree, predicted the New Wave revolution, and to an even larger degree, embraced it more wholeheartedly than any of his peers when it did come. In a way, THRAK is a synthesis of the heavy, infernal math-rock of KCʼs Larksʼ Tongues / Red period with the polygonal futurism of their Discipline era — you can think of it as a more structured and disciplined take on Larks or as a heavier, more metallic take on Discipline, it works in both directions. The problem is that when you are able to slap on such a precise definition, the effect becomes predictable, and so THRAK no longer has the capacity of blowing your mind in the same sudden ways as the three previous incarnations of King Crimson could.

Which is not to say that THRAK is not an excellent, consistent, thoroughly enjoyable set of tunes for which I have the same type of love and admiration as, say, the Stonesʼ Voodoo Lounge — we know very well what to expect at this point, but there is still enough inspiration from the general spirit of the times to keep on infecting you even 25 years later. With the exception of a few minor transitional links, every major composition on THRAK has plenty of energy, one or more thick instrumental hooks, and tons of atmosphere. The doubled rhythm sections make the songs seem lumpy and bulgy, but the professionalism of the players gives them all the precision and agility of a raging hippo — or, perhaps, a T-Rex would be a better analogy, given the title of one of the albumʼs most memorable songs, to which we will be coming shortly.

The meat part of any KC album are always the instrumentals, whose titles this time around bring on associations with Batman comics or Jackie Chan movies more than anything else: ʽTHRAKʼ, ʽVROOOMʼ, ʽBʼBoomʼ, ʽVROOOM VROOOMʼ (for all I know, they might be hidden acronyms, but whoʼs crazy enough to want to find out?). And already the first one of these, ʽVROOOMʼ, is an absolutely shameless variation on the melodic structure and atmosphere of ʽRedʼ — one fanfare-like opening riff, one slowly winding main riff, a quiet mid-section (though here, more than anywhere else, the jangly geometry of Discipline is being shown off), and then coming back around full circle for the coda. The riffs are memorable and the band still pushes ahead with all the ferocity of a freshly oiled old Panzer, but one listen to this track is also enough to understand why THRAK will never be remembered with the same sense of awe as its predecessors — as brutal as it may sound, the level of self-plagiarism is through the roof here. That may have been the intention — here we are, making up a new ʽRedʼ for a new generation of music players and music listeners — but these intentions are limited by definition. I actually think that the extended ʽCoda: Marine 475ʼ conclusion to the track is more interesting — unlike the self-plagiarizing ʽRedʼ-based main body of ʽVROOOMʼ, this part sounds more like a King Crimson attempt to put together the codas of ʽI Am The Walrusʼ and ʽI Want You (Sheʼs So Heavy)ʼ and see what happens when you give them the «double trio» treatment.

The impression does not change much when you go through the rest of the instrumentals. Heavy echoes of ʽLarksʼ Tongues In Aspicʼ (both parts), on one hand, and ʽThela Hun Ginjeetʼ and the like, on the other, resonate all through ʽTHRAKʼ and particularly ʽVROOOM  VROOOMʼ; only ʽBʼBoomʼ is different in that it is mainly a skill show for the bandʼs percussionists, with a tribal jungle sound that, for once, does not seem to have any direct analogies in KCʼs past — but letʼs admit it, we have hardly come here with a primary goal of hearing Bruford and Mastelotto play off each other for four minutes.

In the end, THRAKʼs main attraction are its vocal numbers — not entirely original, either, but not as blatantly ripping off past frameworks as the instrumentals. I suppose that Belew should be taking a lot of credit for these. Over an entire decade separating Three Of A Perfect Pair from THRAK, Adrian had grown into a major solo artist in his own right, with four first-rate albums of neo-Beatlesque pop under his belt, and although the base aesthetics of King Crimson strictly prohibits him from sneaking any of those blatantly pop melodies past Inspector Fripp, some of that classic Beatles spirit, particularly its moody and psychedelic parts, still manage to get smuggled in — see ʽPeopleʼ, for instance, with its ʽTomorrow Never Knowsʼ-influenced back­ward guitar solos and ominously repetitive riff in the coda (once again, highly reminiscent of ʽI Want Youʼ). On the other hand, even Belew slips into formula every now and then: the gently dreamy ballad ʽWalking On Airʼ borrows many elements from ʽMatte Kudasaiʼ, a fact that is hard to hide even behind all the extra layers of guitar complexity that this new decade has brought in. (Amusingly, its lyrics also make reference to "sheltering sky", as if we really needed one more reminder of the greatness of Discipline).

Still, the album does contain two of my favourite KC vocal numbers of all time. The already mentioned ʽDinosaurʼ reflects Belewʼs usual eco-minded themes, though the lyrics are clever enough to yield to both universal (inevitable extinction of man) and personal (inevitable extinction of ME) interpretation — what matters most, though, is the slow, lumbering, brooding atmosphere, with lots of dry, creaky, sustained notes that make you picture this very large, very old, very rusty entity that is nevertheless still clinging to life with all the power it can muster, still strong enough to shoo away all the petty youngsters.

Even more catchy — and more terrifying, when you stop for long enough to truly ponder its symbolism — is ʽSex Sleep Eat Drink Dreamʼ, the portrait of the human being as a simplistically programmed genetic machine with severely limited functionality, hung high up on the nail of one of the most distinctly memorable bass riffs in KC history and featuring Belew in total meat zombie mode: "sex... sleep... eat... drink... dream... sex... sleep... eat... drink... dream..." (listen closely and you will see that only the word ʽdreamʼ in this chain is slightly drawn out, with a tiny bit of tenderness involved — creepy, lately I have been noticing it too that dreaming is becoming the most enjoyable part of my life). If the entire album is nowhere close to a masterpiece, ʽSex Sleep Eat Drink Dreamʼ might arguably be the last properly great song in King Crimsonʼs entire catalog — at least, it is definitely the last King Crimson song that has managed to etch itself a permanent position in the back of my brain.

Summing up, I must point out that normally I experience a sense of disappointment with albums like these — seeing great artists clearly making an effort to progress and ultimately failing because even the greatest ones have their natural limits. But despite its obvious shortcomings, THRAK still holds up as a positive, rather than pathetic, experience. It is an album that says to you, «my main goal is to tell you that King Crimson are still alive and that they are aware that musical fashions have shifted once again», but it is written and produced by people who still have not run out of impressive riffs, catchy vocal melodies, and well-disciplined collective energy to pull it all off with gusto. Fripp himself, as far as I know, does not like to remember this period with too much fondness (probably because he never thought reteaming with Belew and Bruford would be such a great idea), and in the overall critical eye it also seems to somehow have slipped through the cracks, but I think that in the general perspective, it was still more innovative and creative than the Construkction Of Light period, for instance. At the very least, like I said, it would be a pity to have the 1990s, arguably the last properly creative decade for rock music, to have remained without an actual King Crimson incarnation — and it would be rash and silly to expect such an incarnation deliver anything better than these results. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Beatles: On Air - Live At The BBC Vol. 2

THE BEATLES: ON AIR: LIVE AT THE BBC VOL. 2 (1963-1966; 2013)

CD I: 1) And Here We Are Again (speech); 2) Words Of Love; 3) How About It, Gorgeous? (speech); 4) Do You Want To Know A Secret?; 5) Lucille; 6) Hey, Paul... (speech); 7) Anna (Go To Him); 8) Hello! (speech); 9) Please Please Me; 10) Misery; 11) Iʼm Talking About You; 12) A Real Treat (speech); 13) Boys; 14) Absolutely Fab (speech); 15) Chains; 16) Ask Me Why; 17) Till There Was You; 18) Lend Me Your Comb; 19) Lower 5E (speech); 20) The Hippy Hippy Shake; 21) Roll Over Beethoven; 22) Thereʼs A Place; 23) Bumper Bundle (speech); 24) P.S. I Love You; 25) Please Mister Postman; 26) Beautiful Dreamer; 27) Devil In Her Heart; 28) The 49 Weeks (speech); 29) Sure To Fall (In Love With You); 30) Never Mind, Eh? (speech); 31) Twist And Shout; 32) Bye, Bye (speech).
CD II: 1) 1) I Saw Her Standing There; 2) Glad All Over; 3) Lift Lid Again (speech); 4) Iʼll Get You; 5) She Loves You; 6) Memphis, Tennessee; 7) Happy Birthday Dear Saturday Club; 8) Now Hush, Hush (speech); 9) From Me To You; 10) Money (Thatʼs What I Want); 11) I Want To Hold Your Hand; 12) Brian Bathtubes (speech); 13) This Boy; 14) If I Wasnʼt In America (speech); 15) I Got A Woman; 16) Long Tall Sally; 17) If I Fell; 18) A Hard Job Writing Them (speech); 19) And I Love Her; 20) Oh, Canʼt We? Yes We Can (speech); 21) You Canʼt Do That; 22) Honey Donʼt; 23) Iʼll Follow The Sun; 24) Green With Black Shutters (speech); 25) Kansas City / Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey!; 26) Thatʼs What Weʼre Here For (speech); 27) I Feel Fine (studio outtake).

General verdict: Pitiful, really. Just pitiful.


Look, we get it, many of us still have these delightful sexual fantasies of waking up in bed with a brand new Beatles album. But when the original Live At The BBC was officially released in 1994, for all its relative freshness and historical importance it was not for nothing that the compilers actually selected material from several preserved shows, rather than simply taking the first few in their entirety and saving the remaining ones for later. They were actually working on choosing the better takes, the less heard rarities, even the funniest studio banter between the boys and their BBC host Brian Matthew. And back in 1994, there were clearly no plans in the air for a sequel: they took the best and let the worst lie.

Who would have guessed, alas, that either popular demand, or corporate greed, or both, would ascend to such lamentable peaks by the second decade of the 21st century that Apple would renege upon its unspoken pledge, and make the «dregs» officially available as well? Well... okay, anybody with the most basic predictive powers and a healthy amount of cynical attitude most probably could. And in all honesty, there is nothing inherently wrong in making the entirety of archival content preserved from the greatest pop band of all time publicly available. But this is simply not how you go about it.

If you want to have a proper historical document, what you actually do is take all the stuff, arrange it in proper chronological order and release it, as a «deluxe package» or «special limited time release only» whatever. Such a Live At The BBC Complete Edition would be objectively unimpeachable — aimed at history buffs, mostly, but actually doing its job properly for all the history buffs, you know, the way they do with all those latest mammoth-size King Crimson or Bob Dylan releases. On Air does precisely the opposite: it gives you a chronologically bizarre mish-mash of mostly second-rate performances that were rejected the first time around, leaving the completist still yearning for more and the more casual fan confused as to what the hell s/he has just been offered.

If, for some reason, you have never heard the original Live At The BBC, you will find here many live versions of Beatles classics that are inferior to the studio originals, but worth hearing just for that special brand of youthful Beatles enthusiasm that still oozed out of the Fab Four even within the confines of a radio program. If, for some totally incomprehensible reason, you have never heard any songs from the Beatles, period (or, at least, their early period), On Air is, of course, a five-star album, because hearing these songs even with flubbed notes and occasionally off-key vocals still does not detract from their ultimate greatness. But if you are saddled with all that experience, well, I am sad to say that:

(a) the only two completely «new» songs are a cover of Chuck Berryʼs ʽIʼm Talking About Youʼ and of Tony Orlandoʼs interpretation of the old standard ʽBeautiful Dreamerʼ. Both are taken from early 1963 performances for Saturday Club, featuring very shitty sound quality. Chuckʼs song at least features a credible John performance, but also shows how little suited George was to the position of a lead guitarist in a blues-rock band — the Stones kick the shit out of them with this kind of material anyway. ʽBeautiful Dreamerʼ is about as good as ʽMy Bonnieʼ was, which is hardly a compliment. Thatʼs all you get, folks;

(b) the absolute majority of the other songs was already featured on the original Live At The BBC — at worst, in equally competent versions, at best, in vastly superior ones as far as playing and recording quality were concerned. Sure, I only really listened to the album once, and I may have missed some subtle cute nuances every now and then, but who really expects subtle cute nuances from the Beatles in concert?;

(c) of the numerous bits of studio banter between the boys and Matthew, I do not remember even a single one that would match the occasional humor and wittiness of the original. Most of this is just stupid trash-talk that needed to be spoken because you had to say something into those mikes, and you couldnʼt always be expected to come up with something funny and/or intelligent even if you had the dirty mind of a John Lennon. Oh, they sing "Happy Birthday Dear Saturday Club" at one point. If that ainʼt a true Beatles highlight, I donʼt know what is.

Honestly, it is a little sad to realize that this might be the final review for the final official album release of previously unheard Beatles material — even sadder to realize that this might not be such a final review, because who knows what the future still has in store for us. Having Fun With The Beatles On Stage? Eight Hours Of Relaxing Nature Sounds — The Beatlesʼ Footsteps On The Threshold Of Abbey Road Studios? The Beatles Live At Wherever There Was No Recording Equipment In The First Place, But You Can Feel Their Presence All The Same? Come to think of it, the possibilities are endless.

In the meantime, do not waste your time on this shameless scam. There is actually a 9-CD bootleg edition out there called The Complete BBC Sessions, which does precisely what I was talking about — collect everything the band did in chronological order and provide you with a wholesome, historically cohesive perspective, if not necessarily give you nine hours of thorough musical enjoyment. Just get your thieving hands on this package instead, and show those money-grabbing capitalists at EMI what social justice, artistic taste, and personal accuracy are all about.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Elvis Presley: Jailhouse Rock

ELVIS PRESLEY: JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957)

1) Jailhouse Rock; 2) Treat Me Nice*; 3) I Want To Be Free; 4) Donʼt Leave Me Now; 5) Young And Beautiful; 6) (Youʼre So Square) Baby I Donʼt Care; 7) Poor Boy*; 8) Let Me*.

General verdict: Short, but essential — the culmination (or, at least, the beginning of the culmination) of the Elvis + Leiber/Stoller teamwork.

Although, for some reason, the soundtrack to Jailhouse Rock never got expanded to the status of a full-blown LP, it is still well worth making a brief stop for this short 5-song EP — if only because both the movie and the title track were such iconic landmarks in the Elvis legend. The movie, despite the clichéd plot, still remains as one of the few genuinely watchable Elvis films, and the title track... well, just one more great result of the Elvis + Leiber & Stoller collaboration. Unlike ʽHound Dogʼ, ʽJailhouse Rockʼ does not really bite: its main melody is a fairly harmless, comical piece of boogie, and the maniacal energy of its vocals is rowdy, but not aggressive — it is, after all, the manifesto of jailbirds who just want to have some fun, not beat up the warden or anything. But still, it is a call for fun from the other side of the bars — already the opening beat brings on associations with truncheons hitting against polished steel — and this definitely takes us at least one step further than, say, ripping it up on a Saturday night.

Recent assessments of ʽJailhouse Rockʼ often tend to dwell on the homoerotic connotations of the tune (and especially the movie sequence), of which there are plenty, but I think that the prison theme in general is more essential here — Leiber and Stoller always liked subtly playing around with issues of social justice, and if they could infuse the music of the countryʼs most popular rockʼnʼroll performer with such a subject, even in a purely comical manner, how could they have bypassed the chance? Up until then, the jail theme was largely the domain of old bluesmen and weathered country-western performers; ʽJailhouse Rockʼ introduces it to the prom-party-oriented genre of rockabilly, and in such a way that it would be impossible not to take notice — the production is right in your face, without the slightest traces of echo on the Kingʼs voice and Scottyʼs simple boogie rhythm guitar downtuned and distorted just enough to make the song join the long queue of pretenders for the «proto-metal» sound. Such a friendly atmosphere, but still enough to piss off your parents — and this right at the very moment when theyʼd nearly come to terms with the man for all his Christmas and gospel offerings.

This is not to demean the quality and importance of the other songs here — if anything, the short length of the EP guarantees its consistency. There is ʽTreat Me Niceʼ, which has easily the best combination of piano and quirky percussion on any Elvis record, and a hilarious blend of Elvisʼ bass mumble and The Jordanairesʼ backing vocals — always a touch of ecstasy when his "if you donʼt behave..." rockets out of this confusing vocal soup. There is ʽBaby I Donʼt Careʼ, on which Elvis himself plays bass — and although the bassline is as simple as you could predict, it still somehow ends up making the song. There is ʽI Want To Be Freeʼ, a song which does for Elvis pretty much the same thing as ʽHelp!ʼ would do for The Beatles — formulaic love song on the surface, subtle and painful cry for assistance at the bottom: the way he modulates that "I want to be FREE, FREE, FREE - EE - EE... I want to be free, like the bird in the tree" goes from aching to hysteria and back to yearning pain in an amazing emotional somersault. (Did he ever perform the song live? I donʼt think so — I donʼt think the Colonel would have approved). There are also two more ballads by Aaron Schroeder that are not as good as the Leiber/Stoller material, but there is still enough first-rate vocal acrobatics on ʽDonʼt Leave Me Nowʼ to pardon its rather generic doo-wop characteristics.

On a technical note, Jailhouse Rock did make it to CD on its own, expanded with a bunch of alternate takes (not essential — for instance, the movie version of ʽJailhouse Rockʼ with backing vocals from the «inmates» somewhat smoothes out the punch of the single version) and also throwing on the earlier EP Love Me Tender, with four songs from Elvisʼ first movie. It is a bit amusing to be reverted to that year-old sound and hear how different it was — though, allegedly, Love Me Tender was a cowboy movie, accounting for the generally C&W nature of the sound­track. ʽPoor Boyʼ, ʽLet Meʼ, ʽWeʼre Gonna Moveʼ — rowdy campfire material, all of them, and produced in such an intimate manner that you can almost feel yourself sharing a drink with the King after a hard day of rodeoing or whatever.

Elvis Presley: Elvis' Christmas Album

ELVIS PRESLEY: ELVISʼ CHRISTMAS ALBUM (1957)

1) Santa Claus Is Back In Town; 2) White Christmas; 3) Here Comes Santa Claus; 4) Iʼll Be Home For Christmas; 5) Blue Christmas; 6) Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me); 7) O Little Town Of Bethlehem; 8) Silent Night; 9) (Thereʼll Be) Peace In The Valley; 10) I Believe; 11) Take My Hand, Precious Lord; 12) It Is No Secret.

General verdict: A surprisingly fresh take on traditional styles, but one whose freshness might not hold up so well half a century later.

The actual LP going by this name, released in October ʼ57 so that it could be played non-stop for at least two months by Elvis fans, is really a combo, bringing together all the material from a shorter Christmas-themed EP and an earlier released EP of gospel songs (Peace In The Valley), thus giving the listener ample opportunity to evaluate and appreciate Mr. Presley in at least two related, but distinct roles — that of a Christmas caroler and that of an ardent gospel preacher. Both roles, of course, came just as naturally to his fairly traditionalist character as that of the hip-swinginʼ rockʼnʼroller, and how much you will appreciate them, to some degree, will depend on how fairly traditionalist you are.

Or maybe not, because, actually, the first side of the album was fairly groundbreaking by the standards of 1957. Accustomed as we are these days to all sorts of non-standard, individualistic, often arrogantly irreverent takes on the Christmas subject by zillions of artists, it is easy to forget that in the 1950s this domain was still completely dominated by crooners; so much so that, reportedly, Irving Berlin petitioned radio stations to ban Elvisʼ version of ʽWhite Christmasʼ, claiming that it profanated the very idea of the song (ironically, he never demanded the same for the earlier Drifters cover which was Elvisʼ main source of inspiration, since he most likely paid little attention to «colored» radio stations). It works much better, consequently, if you play this side back to back with a Bing Crosby Christmas compilation, if only to make sure how Elvis made the Christmas format adapt to his own style rather than vice versa.

It is hardly accidental, anyway, that the album begins with a newly written song, and that its authors are the same iconoclastic kids Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller whoʼd already given Elvis ʽHound Dogʼ — and even if the song is nothing but a generic mid-tempo 12-bar blues, this was arguably the first time in history that a bunch of punks was allowed to have this kind of fun with the established format. A couple other songs are done by Elvis in his «softcore» rockʼnʼroll mode (ʽHere Comes Santa Clausʼ and particularly ʽSanta Bring My Baby Back To Meʼ), nothing too offensive but still inviting you to get up on your feet and jump around in a decidedly un-solemn fashion. ʽBlue Christmasʼ is also innovative, with the Jordanaires playing on the title by singing blue notes in the background — and the entire song, consecutively, dipping into the blues rather than pure country, to which it originally belonged.

All in all, it is evident that plenty of fun had been had with the source material, even if its impact has inevitably become dimmed with age, and today our enjoyment will largely depend on how much we like Christmas tunes in general and how much we remain in awe of Elvisʼ voice in particular. This is all in stark contrast with the gospel songs from Peace In The Valley — even though their arrangements, too, have been predictably modernized, it is obvious that fooling around with such a mediator of dubious origins as Father Christmas is one thing, but tinkering with the well-established format of a direct address to God is quite another. Here, Elvis loyally follows the singing formula of Mahalia Jackson and other gospel greats, and although he does a technically good job — this kind of material requires far stricter voice control and far more advanced technique, after all, than jump blues — this is not exactly the type of music into which I have immersed myself to the extent of needing to see what Elvis can do with it.

Back in the day, it was probably considered more of a PR move to reconcile Elvis with the offended parents of his teenage fans, or, perhaps, even more cynically, to put him on that last corner of the musical market that was still seriously dominated by African-American artists; Elvis himself, however, most likely regarded this as his sincere homage to all the great masters of spirituals, as well as, perhaps, his own way of making peace with God, just in case the latter really took offense at his hip-swivelling behavior. Regardless of the motives, Elvis has plenty of vocal power and subtlety to make some of these gospel songs every bit as sexy as his best love ballads — replacing the Old Testamental fire and brimstone of Mahalia Jacksonʼs deliveries with romantic sentiment that could make the Lord himself blush a little bit (I mean, ʽTake My Hand, Precious Lordʼ sounds like a wedding song all by itself, but Elvisʼ purry touch makes it even more of an under-the-balcony serenade than it already is).

In short, regardless of our personal feelings, this is an album of fairly major historical importance (a fact that is indirectly reflected in its mind-blowing sales records), and furthermore, it might be argued that Elvis would never really match the quality and the freshness of these gospel and Christmas recordings again. Maybe the best news is that this is all still done in the same low-profile, «chamber» format — just Elvis, his little backing band, and The Jordanaires singing hush-hush vocals in the background, no Vegasy glitz whatsoever. This way, the material does not stand at odds with the manʼs contemporary rock and pop classics; however, I still think that it works best next to these classics rather than completely on its own, and should rather be judged according to the «terrific rockʼnʼroll guy puts his stamp on more traditional genres» principle than the «young bumpkin from Memphis dares to compete with Bing Crosby and Mahalia Jackson» alternative. Then, finally, there will be peace in the valley for him. 

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Interpol: Turn On The Bright Lights

INTERPOL: TURN ON THE BRIGHT LIGHTS (2002)

1) Untitled; 2) Obstacle 1; 3) NYC; 4) PDA; 5) Say Hello To The Angels; 6) Hands Away; 7) Obstacle 2; 8) Stella Was A Diver And She Was Always Down; 9) Roland; 10) The New; 11) Leif Erikson.

General verdict: If this is indeed one of the best indie rock albums of the 2000s, this explains the nichization of rock music more transparently than any other case study.


In the early and still somewhat optimistic years of the 21st century, God made a plan to save rock music — again — because rock music was apparently in need of saving — again. The plan was quick, rough, and impulsive, as should befit any plan dealing with rock music, and involved the usual three steps. Step 1: The Strokes lead an initial Panzer attack and take the world by surprise with their rejuvenated brand of garage punk, just like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols did 25 years before. Step 2: Interpol arrive with heavy infantry reinforcements and assuage the dazzled world with their reintellectualized brand of post-punk, just like Joy Division and the Cure did 25 years before. Step 3: Fuck knows what, itʼs all supposed to auto-pilot itself to Heaven.

Reading back on all sorts of stuff that has been written about the first albums by these bands and the general history of indie-rock in the first five years of the 21st century, you could almost make yourself believe that Godʼs plan totally succeeded. Many retro-reviews of Turn On The Bright Lights, in particular, still praise the record as a blissful poetic and musical revelation, almost singlehandedly responsible for the indie-rock revival of the 2000s — in the wake of Interpolʼs success came The National, Deerhunter, Arcade Fire, and tons of lesser artists to serve as trendy contemporary deities for young millennial hipsters with dark and sensitive hearts (the ones with bright and hedonistic hearts would rather have their choice of Strokes, Hives, and Vines). The album has definitely become part of the canon for rockʼs twilight years (I think we could safely reserve that term for the 2000s, since «rock music» as such in the 2010s has pretty much become relegated to museum exhibits and revival carnivals), and will most likely continue to be respected as long as millennials still have a voice in forming consensus.

Whether the record is really all that valuable if you do place it in the overall context of musical history rather than personal nostalgia is, however, quite a different matter. Over the course of quite a few listens — many more than the minimum requirement of three that I usually demand from myself to write about anything — there was never even one second during which I would find my senses in ecstasy, and quite a few seconds (and minutes) during which I would find myself in a state of terminal boredom. To my ears, this era of Interpol is characterized, above and beyond everything else, by barely-bearably lazy songwriting. The typical formula for an Interpol song is as follows: «find one chord — play it in staccato mid-tempo mode — stick to it for about three or four minutes — put some monotonous and emotionally drained vocals on top of it — rinse and repeat ten or eleven times». Sounds familiar?

To be fair, this is a formula that occasionally could work, and itʼs not as if the abovementioned Joy Division or Cure would always rise above it themselves. The problem is, I am still at a total loss when trying to understand what it is that Paul Banks and his not-so-merry band of young New Yorkers are actually adding to it. Subtracting, sure; adding, not so sure. Everything about this set of songs screams «competence»; not a single thing screams «genius». Heck, not even a single thing screams «so well adapted to the values of the 2000s!», though maybe that last one is actually a good thing, because at least the record still sounds relatively timeless 18 years later (unlike, say, Franz Ferdinand).

As an example, let us focus (as hard as it is) on ʽPDAʼ, the first single from the album. Like most other songs here, it is a mid-tempo rocker with all the musical complexity of a Ramones song but none of the Ramonesʼ humor and self-irony. Lyrically, it establishes its grim seriousness pretty much immediately with the opening line "yours is the only version of my desertion that I could ever subscribe to" (whatever that means) and confirms it with the chorus of "we have two hundred couches where you can sleep tight, grim rite" (I wonder why they didnʼt hire David Lynch to make the video for the song). But musically, the only thing that goes on is an incessant monotonous strum — which does gain a little intensity as they head into the coda, but certainly not enough to make me feel that they are doing anything even remotely interesting with those guitars. And what sort of atmosphere is the song trying to convey? Darkness? Desperation? Cold resignation? The vocals are so utterly bland and the guitar lines are so completely generic that the song just passes by without tickling a single nerve in my body.

Another example — second single, ʽObstacle 1ʼ. Here you could make an interesting comparison, because the second of the songʼs two interlocking riffs, the repetitive two-chord strum, is a clear (even if subconscious) nod to Televisionʼs ʽMarquee Moonʼ, making it clear who these guysʼ principal role models are; and indeed, both songs strive to create a similar atmosphere, conveying a sense of emotional frustration in some restricted environment. But ʽMarquee Moonʼ actually uses that two-chord strum (opening the song) as a foundation, a base pulse around which the second, relatively complicated, swirling second riff winds around — not to mention the snapping, venomous vocals which tell you not to fuck around with the hero. In ʽObstacle 1ʼ, the two-chord strum arrives later and is actually the compositionʼs «lead» element; eventually, they start playing around with both riffs and trying to develop them in different directions, but the opening minute is disappointingly wasted, and the weak vocals offer little assistance — itʼs like somebody is desperately trying to get angry about something, but since heʼs actually got nothing serious to get angry about, the effort is not convincing.

What about something faster? ʽSay Hello To The Angelsʼ, for instance, whose main riff was actually shamelessly stolen by Arcade Fire for the coda to ʽWake Upʼ? (In all honesty, though, that is such an obvious riff, it must have been used in at least a couple dozen pop-rock songs before, I just canʼt unscramble them in my head right now). Formally, itʼs energetic, but where are the hooks? Are they supposed to be lodged somewhere within the "you move into my air space" chorus? But it is merely a case of raising the volume a little, there is nothing non-trivial or surprising, no real build-up, no classy melodic resolutions, just nothing: a perfect example of how to do a fast rock song with zero new ideas.

You can easily extrapolate all these comments on most of the rest of these songs. Like so many revered (or not revered) albums from its era, what Turn On The Bright Lights really does is cut out a small chunk of the legacy of one or two established acts of the past and then amplify that chunk to the extent that, if we want to really enjoy it, we have to force ourselves to distinguish between the slightest and subtlest of nuances. For all the comparisons to Ian Curtis, and for all the thematic and atmospheric homogeneity of Joy Division songs, I do not remember Joy Division starting every second song of theirs with the same repetitive «ching ching ching ching ching ching ching ching» pattern — their guitar lines could borrow from the arsenals of just about anybody from The Doors to Black Sabbath, and whatʼs even more important, they never sounded like a bunch of well-meaning school kids afraid to seriously crank it up because the headmaster could come along at any moment and throw them out of the rehearsal hall. Post-punk really does not work all that well on tranquilizers, and it honestly sounds as if these guys were popping them down by the dozen during recording sessions.

All in all, though, Turn On The Bright Lights is a pretty important record because it gives a very clear explanation — well, one of many possible and non-mutually excluding explanations — to why the 2000s finally spelt out the death of rock music as a major captivating form of artistic expression. Over several previous decades, there was always this feel that rock music can be revived by stripping itself from its accumulated excesses and going back to its roots. It worked in the late 1970s, it worked well enough in the early 1990s — but this record demonstrates why it didnʼt really work in the early 2000s, even if, for a while, some people thought (or at least pains­takingly tried to convince themselves) that it did. The thing is, if you do not really put out, 100%, there is no sense in putting out at all. Turn On The Bright Lights — and, alas, a lot of second-hand indie rock that it inspired — is a derivative, unimaginative, limp, hookless mess with some pretense to intellectualism (mainly due to Paul Banksʼ intentionally enigmatic but, frankly, not too engaging lyrics) that simply has no reason to exist unless we previously burn down every little thing that our forefathers have left for us in the New Wave era.

Of course, Turn On The Bright Lights is not even Interpolʼs best record (though it will be pretty hard to convince people otherwise, given its well-canonized status); of course, 2000s indie rock cannot be reduced to its influence and imitations; and it goes without saying that Interpol were hardly the inventors of this bland, boring, faux-intellectualized rock sound, what with second-rate post-punk bands being there on the scene from the day that post-punk was born. They simply happened to be one of the first second-rate rock bands of the 21st century to be promoted as first-rate — helping establish a new, lowered-expectation standard for the genre that looks so pathetic in the overall historical context. Alas, the fact that they seemingly had no competition for that standard in 2002 — and, come to think of it, they still donʼt have much of a competition as late as 2020 — sort of speaks for itself. 

Friday, January 10, 2020

King Crimson: The Great Deceiver

KING CRIMSON: THE GREAT DECEIVER (1973-1974; 1992)

CD I: 1) Walk On... No Pussyfooting; 2) Larksʼ Tongues In Aspic, Part Two; 3) Lament; 4) Exiles; 5) Improv: A Voyage To The Centre Of The Cosmos; 6) Easy Money; 7) Improv: Providence; 8) Fracture; 9) Starless.
CD II: 1) 21st Century Schizoid Man; 2) Walk Off From Providence/No Pussyfooting; 3) Sharksʼ Tongues In Lemsip; 4) Larksʼ Tongues In Aspic, Part One; 5) Book Of Saturday; 6) Easy Money; 7) Weʼll Let You Know; 8) The Night Watch; 9) Improv: Tight Scrummy; 10) Peace – A Theme; 11) Cat Food; 12) Easy Money; 13) It Is For You, But Not For Me.
CD III: 1) Walk On... No Pussyfooting; 2) The Great Deceiver; 3) Improv – Bartley Butsford; 4) Exiles; 5) Improv: Daniel Dust; 6) The Night Watch; 7) Doctor Diamond; 8) Starless; 9) Improv: Wilton Carpet; 10) The Talking Drum; 11) Larksʼ Tongues In Aspic, Part Two; 12) Applause & Announcement; 13) Improv: Is There Life Out There?
CD IV: 1) Improv: The Golden Walnut; 2) The Night Watch; 3) Fracture; 4) Improv: Clueless And Slightly Slack; 5) Walk On... No Pussyfooting; 6) Improv: Some Pussyfooting; 7) Larksʼ Tongues In Aspic Part One; 8) Improv: The Law Of Maximum Distress Part One; 9) Improv: The Law Of Maximum Distress Part Two; 10) Easy Money; 11) Improv: Some More Pussyfooting; 12) The Talking Drum.

General verdict: A milestone in the history of boxed sets, but somewhat outdated now in terms of scope (too much for the beginner, too little for the completionist).


Back in 1992, the release of this sprawling, 4 CD-long archival boxset was nothing short of a minor sensation — the age of the Luxurious Boxset had only just begun, and although quite a few long-bearded bands had already invested in such items, the typical boxset was a compilation, something along the lines of «greatest hits and rarities». Here, by contrast, was a huge document specifically and thoroughly covering one single touring event in King Crimson history, namely, the Larksʼ Tongues and Red years, with several complete or near-complete shows joined together and, consequently, featuring plenty of overlaps (see no fewer than four different versions of ʽEasy Moneyʼ, for instance).

It was obvious from the start that this was a package only for the most dedicated fan, but it is somewhat symbolic that of all the progressive rock greats of the genreʼs golden era, it was Fripp who had chosen to initiate this trend, which, as far as King Crimson is concerned, is still going strong almost thirty years later. Live performance was an essential part of just about every prog rock act, but in King Crimsonʼs case, it was the stage where most of their music either began, as the result of a particularly lucky improvisation on a particularly inspired night, or became fleshed out in its most perfect, visceral, vivid form. For all the greatness of Yes or Genesis, it is hard to deny that their stage performances were essentially honest and efficient reproductions of their studio recordings (with the addition of impressive visuals, especially for Genesis), leaving little space to improvisation and not really following the «crank-it-up-to-eleven» law of a solid rock performance. Fripp took a completely different approach — yet up until the CD age proper audio documentation of King Crimson performances was severely limited by the LP format, at least when it came to the issue of officially releasing and promoting stuff.

Ironically, as we now move out of the CD age and into something completely different, boxsets like The Great Deceiver begin to look obsolete — a transitional state, if you wish, between the ages of «archival tapes rotting in the vaults» and «total availability at the wave of oneʼs finger». For the casual fan, this was overkill from the beginning; for the completionist and the historian, The Great Deceiver has largely been put out of business by even larger subsequent packages, such as Starless and The Road To Red, which in between them contain soundboard recordings of pretty much every show the band played in 1973 and 1974, making Deceiver now look like a puny sample of the goods in comparison.

I, personally, prefer my archival King Crimson in reasonably small doses, such as Epitaph or Absent Lovers, and for all my love and respect towards the band, think that setting oneself the challenge of listening to The Road To Red in its entirety requires a special level of fanaticism which I cannot afford. Even The Great Deceiver is a bit too much for me: I could easily live without more than half of the improvised pieces, and picking out the subtle performance nuances between so many different ʽExilesʼ and ʽFracturesʼ would be a cool task if you were paid to do this on the same level as they pay people to review bubblegum pop in Rolling Stone, but since this is obviously never going to happen, to hell with nuances.

Which is not to deny that 1973–74 was one of the finest moments in King Crimson history — these were, after all, the years during which most prog-rock acts had become to stagnate, repeat themselves, or lose direction, while King Crimson became the only act to have successfully reinvented and modernized their sound, and up until 1992, the only concert document of that reinvention which we had (not counting the studio-doctored live stuff on Starless And Bible Black) was the posthumously released USA: too brief, too non-representative, too quickly forgotten. In particular, we never got around to hear the Larksʼ Tongues incarnation of the band, with wild man Jamie Muir on percussion... oh, thatʼs right, we arenʼt going to hear it on here, either, since all the 1973 concerts included on Deceiver are post-Muir. Still, you do get to hear pretty much all the classic studio material from that epoch, interspersed with tons of improvs, a tiny bit of polite, gentlemanly stage banter, and even a rare live performance of ʽCat Foodʼ whose hysterical vocal melody suits Wetton just as fine as it suited Lake.

If I had to pick just a few exemplary rarities to promote the package for a randomly chosen poor sucker, I might have dwelled a bit on ʽDoctor Diamondʼ, not an improvisation but rather a fairly well-developed outtake from the Red sessions — perhaps its vocal melody was ultimately judged as too folk-bluesy to match the groundbreaking standards of Red, but it is quite a respectable representative of the bandʼs math-rock approach, alternating between jagged blues-rock and slow moving psychedelia with screechy hellish violin. Of the improvisational pieces, I gravitate more towards those with well-established, tight, relatively simplistic rhythms, such as ʽTight Scrummyʼ with its almost Latin percussion — Bruford keeps the tension high for about five minutes, making the entire band sound like «Santana meets Amon Düül II», before it all collapses and the rhythm disappears altogether, leaving the guitar and the violin duel each other to the death for another four minutes (spoiler: nobody wins). Most of the others blur into a homogeneous mass after a while, though my tolerance for large quantities of this mass steadily increases as I grow older and learn to perceive these soundscapes with a bit of cool-headed intellectualized detachment, rather than passionate amazement or equally passionate indignation.

In any case, it is hardly questionable that The Great Deceiver remains, first and foremost, a historical landmark in the story of King Crimson and progressive rock in general — a bold statement, in an era when prog-rock still remained one of rock criticsʼ easiest punching bags, that there was demand out there for more hidden treasures from the vaults, and that this demand was not at all limited to the likes of the Grateful Dead. One thing I cannot say about these recordings, though, is that owning them might be preferable to owning the studio records — if anything, King Crimsonʼs onstage powers only increased with age, whereas in the studio the standards set by Fripp in 1973–74 would arguably never be surpassed. Simply put, to my ears the Fripp / Wetton / Bruford (add or subtract Cross) lineup never gelled that good onstage as would the Discipline lineup — for one thing, Wetton was never that great a bass player, and for another, Brufordʼs love for complex polyrhythmics occasionally leads him to sloppiness: by the 1980s, heʼd actually tighten his act, but here itʼs as if he is still saddled way too much by staying in «Yes mode», which is a great mode for Yes, but not so great for King Crimson.

Of course, none of these criticisms are meant to be taken scientifically or even too seriously — and even if you agree with them, this slight element of sloppiness might seem preferable to some over the tightly run man-machine style of Discipline. But hoo boy, when you hear that tightly run man-machine style actually taken to its limits on stage... well, you can probably tell that The Great Deceiver ends up spending a lot less time in my player than Absent Lovers. 

Monday, January 6, 2020

Elvis Presley: Loving You

ELVIS PRESLEY: LOVING YOU (1957)

1) Mean Woman Blues; 2) (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear; 3) Loving You; 4) Got A Lot Oʼ Livinʼ To Do!; 5) Lonesome Cowboy; 6) Hot Dog; 7) Party; 8) Blueberry Hill; 9) True Love; 10) Donʼt Leave Me Now; 11) Have I Told You Lately That I Love You; 12) I Need You So; 13*) Tell Me Why; 14*) Is It So Strange*; 15) One Night Of Sin*; 16) When It Rains, It Really Pours*.

General verdict: A little too much silly joyous doggy woof and a bit too little angry doggy bark, but at least the basic ingredients of the classic Elvis sound are still intact.


Elvisʼ soundtracks typically tend to be segregated into a separate section in his discographies, either because there were so many of them or because, due to the — putting it mildly — dubious artistic nature of most of his movie, they would inevitably bear this stigma and had to suffer being categorized as «inessential» listening. In reality, of course, there was never any systematic, intrinsic discrepancy in quality between the manʼs proper LPs and his soundtracks; nor does it make sense to complain about any lack of coherence on these soundtracks — like any other Elvis LP, they just give you the usual mix of softer / harder rockers and ballads which will be tenderly appreciated by any supporter of the «more Elvis is better Elvis» ideology. The respective quality of the music and the movies, so it seems, rarely correlated with each other anyway — on one hand, I wouldnʼt say that the soundtrack to King Creole, inarguably Elvisʼ best movie, was necessarily superior to everything else he recorded in the late Fifties; on the other, the quality of the music is occasionally the only thing that redeems some of his weakest Sixtiesʼ films.

In any case, it makes little sense to discuss any specific connections between the plot of Elvisʼ first movie and the music on this LP (only half of which comes from the movie anyway). What does make sense is to notice that the ratio of hard rock vs. everything else keeps decreasing: the only properly angry rocker in sight is the very first song, ʽMean Woman Bluesʼ, for which we should specifically thank the wonderful R&B writer Claude Demetrius, who earlier used to make a living penning hilarious ditties for the likes of Louis Jordan, and later would get Elvis another first-rate ferocious hit in ʽHard Headed Womanʼ (judging by the lyrics, Demetrius must have had a really tough time with his women even for the average standards of a popular songwriter). In terms of melody or atmosphere, it adds little to Elvisʼ recorded legacy of 1956, but it does give you another excellent example of how focused and, well, mean his little combo could be (though, if you ask me, the definitive version of the song is to be found on Jerry Lee Lewisʼ Live At The Star Club album, where his patented loud-to-quiet-back-to-loud trick blows the roof off the house — Elvis never toys with your senses in such an openly provocative manner).

The only other song here that tries to capture a similar type of energy is ʽGot A Lot Oʼ Livinʼ To Doʼ, but its particular energy is not an energy of anger — true to the songʼs title, it is the energy of some boundless joie de vivre, with Scottyʼs guitar licks in sexy playful mode and Elvisʼ vocals in sped-up sentimental pop mode; it is simply a bombastic and revved-up rhythm section that distinguishes the song from the likes of ʽTeddy Bearʼ. This is not a reprieve, though — the wild style arrangement gives this happy youthful anthem a whiff of rebelliousness all the same, and a properly happy Elvis can be just as infectious and hypnotizing as a properly sexually provocative or a chillingly morose Elvis. It is certainly more memorable than Jessie Mae Robinsonʼs ʽ(Letʼs Have A) Partyʼ, a generic blues-rock number taken at a disappointingly slow tempo — Wanda Jackson would do a much better job by speeding it up and singing the melody in her knife-sharp rasp as if to insinuate what sort of party this would really be; but for Elvis, this particular delivery is more of a throwaway than something to remember.

Still, once again, there are no true total duds on the album. If something is almost unbearably cutesy and cuddly, it is at least impossibly catchy (ʽTeddy Bearʼ); if a balladʼs tenderness is undermined by a lack of hooks, it can still be redeemed by an occasional odd key change on the piano and a weird vocal flow where you get confused as to when one verse ends and the other one begins (title track); if a track bears the suspicious title of ʽLonesome Cowboyʼ, it is at least given an oddly minimalistic, almost somber musical sheen that is reminiscent of the early days at Sun, but also improved by an eerie arrangement of the backing harmonies. Even the cover of Fats Dominoʼs ʽBlueberry Hillʼ injects a subtle bit of vocal melancholy that was only implied, not directly delivered, in Fatsʼ original — making this case another potential playground for the never ending «whatʼs better, the black original or the whitebread cover» debate.

Towards the end, the record does begin to drift off into fairly conventional territory, with second-rate doo-wop numbers and even a recent Cole Porter cover (ʽTrue Loveʼ) whose inclusion must have been fairly detestable for hardcore Elvis fans back in those days. But as long as the band sticks to its minimalistic arrangements, with just the core instrumental quartet and barbershop backing harmonies for extra atmosphere, the results are always tolerable. Unfortunately, already at this stage we occasionally face silly acts of self-censorship — the bonus tracks include Elvisʼ original cover of Dave Bartholomewʼs ʽOne Night (Of Sin)ʼ, with lyrics that were considered so «gross» by the executives ("one night of sin is what Iʼm now paying for") that the song would have to be lyrically re-written and delayed until 1958. As it stands, its fat, bombastic arrangement could have made a very nice and convincing companion to the lighter, thinner New Orleanian sound of ʽBlueberry Hillʼ — but at least thank God for the existence of bonus tracks. 

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Elvis Presley: Elvis

ELVIS (1956)

1) Rip It Up; 2) Love Me; 3) When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again; 4) Long Tall Sally; 5) First In Line; 6) Paralyzed; 7) So Glad Youʼre Mine; 8) Old Shep; 9) Ready Teddy; 10) Anyplace Is Paradise; 11) Howʼs The World Treating You; 12) How Do You Think I Feel; 13*) Hound Dog; 14*) Donʼt Be Cruel; 15*) Any Way You Want Me*; 16*) Too Much; 17*) Playing For Keeps; 18*) Love Me Tender.

General verdict: A bit diluted with generic country and doo-wop, but still proudly carrying rock'n'roll flame to a new generation.

All of Elvisʼ second album, hard and soft stuff alike, pales in comparison with ʽHound Dogʼ, one of the hardest-hitting rockʼnʼroll numbers of its era and possibly the closest Elvis ever came to capturing that classic punk spirit — a short, tight, uncompromising, fully focused assault on the senses, a musical shotgun blast that sends you off flying in pieces. Of course, itʼs not just about Elvis: itʼs about Elvis and his entire backing band, particularly D. J. Fontanaʼs drumming, as loud and aggressive and precise as possible, with each fill between the verses cracking off in solid machine-gun style, and Scotty Mooreʼs guitar, which he not so much plays as spanks in full-on BDSM mode, culminating in the second solo which one can regard as a spiritual predecessor to all the garage-rock excesses of the mid-Sixties.

It is precisely this collective punch which makes casual accusations such as «oh, another case of white boy stealing black peopleʼs music» so ridiculous — never mind the fact that ʽHound Dogʼ was actually written for Big Mama Thornton by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, two kids as Jewish-American as they come, but Elvis and his pals learned the song from Freddie Bell & The Bellboys without knowing anything about Big Mamaʼs slower, bluesier version in the first place. And even if they did, no other band at the time, black or white, would dare to put such a ferocious spin on the melody: I dare say that the intensity of ʽHound Dogʼ in mid-ʼ56 produced an impact well comparable with, say, the first appearances of hardcore punk around 1979. It is one of the few Elvis songs that instills that kind of reaction in me even today, whenever I put it on — most rockabilly classics from the Fifties inevitably sound tamer and cutesier to experienced ears, but not this one. Each time Scotty hits those power chords at 1:22 into the song, it makes me feel like a frickinʼ teenager, no matter how much time has elapsed.

It is somewhat strange that on this LP, most of which was recorded just a couple months after ʽHound Dogʼ, we do not find even a single attempt to properly recapture the same spirit. The closest they come is with a cover of Little Richardʼs ʽLong Tall Sallyʼ, but thereʼs a good reason why ʽHound Dogʼ remains a classic while hardly anybody remembers this inferior version — for one thing, the production is disappointingly muddy next to the sharp-as-a-knife sound of ʽHound Dogʼ, for another, the band plays in a fairly perfunctory manner, with Scotty in more of a playful jazzy mood than pissed-off punk, and, finally, Elvisʼ own delivery has a faint whiff of uncertainty about it, as if he were still pondering over what those lyrics really mean and how he should be approaching them as the tapes began rolling (a mistake that would not be repeated eight years later by Paul McCartney, who did not shy away from giving the song all the attention that it required and came out with a relative winner). This track really does sound a bit like white men trying to steal a black manʼs thunder, and not doing a very good job of it.

In general, as an LP, Elvis takes a predictable step back from the standards of Elvis Presley, though certainly not a big one — on the whole, production values, playing enthusiasm, and cover material remain strong, though the balance is slowly becoming to shift in favor of sentimental ballads and «soft rock». «Hard rock» is basically limited to three numbers, all of them Little Richard covers — and at the very least, Elvis does a much finer job with ʽReady Teddyʼ and ʽRip It Upʼ than he does with ʽLong Tall Sallyʼ, possibly because those two contain fewer sexual innuendos and are generally party tunes about having a wild time at the local joint, an activity certainly closer to Elvisʼ heart than the tabooed sexual practices of ʽSallyʼ. ʽReady Teddyʼ, in particular, brings Mooreʼs and Fontanaʼs energy levels almost back to the same heights as we heard them on ʽHound Dogʼ, though the production is still a little too muddied.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, we see the country boy returning to his whitebread roots with songs like ʽOld Shepʼ, a 4-minute Red Foley ballad whose intention it is to show us that, actually, there are hound dogs around that Elvis does care about. Like many, many, many other Elvis ballads, your reaction to it will largely depend on how convincing and hypnotizing you find the manʼs traditional crooning style; I must issue a warning in advance that if the accompanying melody or musical atmosphere isnʼt convincing enough, I am not easily swayed by Elvisʼ voice as the sole benefit — and with the corny, soapy lyrics of the song sinking it deep in the ground, ʽOld Shepʼ is certainly not the kind of material Iʼd ever like to play at the funeral of my own pet. But with the songʼs length and self-importance, this was clearly a sign — a sign that Mr. Presley was going to be just as respectful of the old folk tradition as he would be of the new rockʼnʼroll standards, and that he would be marketable to all segments of the audience.

In between those extremes there is a whole bunch of bouncier ballads and soft pop-rock nuggets of varying quality, few of them remembered all too well because there are much better examples of the same style: thus, ʽParalyzedʼ utilizes the same boppy chords as both ʽTeddy Bearʼ and ʽDonʼt Be Cruelʼ without being nearly as catchy as either, and the old Crudup blues ʽSo Glad Youʼre Mineʼ would later get a more melodic and energetic update, becoming ʽAinʼt That Loving You Babyʼ. Even Aaron Schroeder, who would later contribute several of the catchiest songs of Elvisʼ entire career, this time gives him a doo-wop toss-off (ʽFirst In Lineʼ, a song that nobody probably remembers unless you happened to dance to it during prom night, which, as of 2020, is somewhat chronologically unlikely).

But at least almost nothing here — with the possible exception of ʽOld Shepʼ — is particularly embarrassing; and if you take the album together with its surrounding singles, most of them available as bonus tracks, the collective weight of the classics (which would also include ʽDonʼt Be Cruelʼ and ʽToo Muchʼ) certainly outshines the lack of gloss on the average material. In any case, while Elvis does give us a few signs that maybe this Memphis kid isnʼt quite as rebelliously punkish as weʼd like him to remain in our hearts, it certainly gives no signs that the fire and passion on his earlier material was just a fluke. Simply put, the «Elvis Machine» hadnʼt yet been put in motion by the end of ʼ56, and there was still plenty of room for maneuvering, trying out different approaches, and generally fooling around. Perhaps, most importantly, Elvis was not yet completely sucked into the movie-making business — his first movie, Love Me Tender, was shot around the same time as the album was recorded, but he still only had a relatively small side part in it, and nobody could predict his big future on the silver screen.