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Monday, May 25, 2020

Elvis Presley: Girl Happy

ELVIS PRESLEY: GIRL HAPPY (1965)

1) Girl Happy; 2) Spring Fever; 3) Fort Lauderdale Chamber Of Commerce; 4) Startinʼ Tonight; 5) Wolf Call; 6) Do Not Disturb; 7) Cross My Heart And Hope To Die; 8) The Meanest Girl In Town; 9) Do The Clam; 10) Puppet On A String; 11) Iʼve Got To Find My Baby; 12) Youʼll Be Gone.

General verdict: If thatʼs a «girl happy» look on the front cover, then this album is a masterpiece.


The «big» number on this soundtrack is ʽPuppet On A Stringʼ, both the centerpiece of the movie (the song where the guy gets the girl) and the main single from the LP, with ʽWooden Heartʼ reused as the B-side by subconscious association (Elvis The Puppeteer). Tepper and Bennett really went all out on this one, trying to make it as suave as possible, but I think somebody ought to conduct a class sometime on the comparative virtues of this song and ʽHere, There And Everywhereʼ to illustrate the difference between «corny suave» and «magic suave». I guess that ultimately it still boils down to the fact that ʽPuppet On A Stringʼ, down at the core, is a very trivial and generic country shuffle, smoothed and silkened out with glossy production. Even the Jordanaires sound like hired guns whose only purpose is to put the baby to sleep.

At least Doc Pomus is back as main songwriter on the title track, whose fast tempo and rousing catchy chorus are easily the most memorable thing about this soundtrack — if you can get past the stereotypical gigolo lyrics, somehow unaccompanied by even the slightest hints of genuine sexual passion (Iʼm pretty sure that by that time Elvisʼ «girl-happy» period was long gone by), then I guess itʼs an okay enough composition and recording, though it never truly lives up to the potential of its twangy opening guitar line (played by new electric guitar player Tommy Tedesco, Duane Eddy-style).

Everything else is business and usual — rewrites and/or embarrassments. The lowest point is probably ʽFort Lauderdale Chamber Of Commerceʼ, sleazy to the core ("Girls on the beaches commit a sin / They donʼt show yards and yards of skin" is one of the worst lyrical lines ever submitted to the artist) and arranged as a relaxing Caribbean ballad to boot. But there is also ʽDo The Clamʼ, sanitizing Bo Diddleyʼs style for diabetic consumption; ʽCross My Heart And Hope To Dieʼ, another ridiculous mash-up of ʽToo Muchʼ and ʽStuck On Youʼ; and ʽWolf Callʼ, whose attempt at a mating call is neither subtle nor dangerous, just dumb. "Now donʼt tell me you donʼt fall / For that wolf call" is definitely the perfect way to net a womanʼs attention.

Perhaps the worst thing about it all is the sequencing. About 50% of the songs present Elvis as a sweet, gentle, exquisitely caring crooner-serenader, whereas the other 50% have him as an absolutely cringe-inducing sleazebag who has recently been kicked out of the first grade of the local pickup school. Naturally, there is no lack of «two-faced» pop artists alternating between «womanizing» and «romantic» moods as if changing shirts, but you can just get away with it if you really put your heart and mind into both modes — Girl Happy is an embodiment how you can do both of these things really badly at the same time, and when you interweave them the way we have it here, oh boy... hard to believe, really, that many girls could still be falling all over Elvis in this incarnation, but then, the world has always been a weird place. 

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Brief note on comments

Hey guys,

please note that as of today, I have disabled "anonymous" commenting on the blog; from now on, only Google Account users will be able to post comments. Unfortunately, I do not have enough time to keep track of trolls and spammers, indistinguishable from another. Thanks for understanding. I think most people have Google accounts anyway, so it won't be much of a problem.

Elvis Presley: Roustabout

ELVIS PRESLEY: ROUSTABOUT (1964)

1) Roustabout; 2) Little Egypt; 3) Poison Ivy League; 4) Hard Knocks; 5) Itʼs A Wonderful World; 6) Big Love Big Heartache; 7) One Track Heart; 8) Itʼs Carnival Time; 9) Carny Town; 10) Thereʼs A Brand New Day On The Horizon; 11) Wheels On My Heels.

General verdict: Back to being as irrelevant for the times as a travelinʼ carnival show might be — after all, La Strada this movie is not, nor are these composers anywhere near to Nino Rota.


Well, unfortunately Joan Freeman is no Ann-Margret, and Roustabout is a much less inspiring movie title than Viva Las Vegas — implying that the spark had gone out as quickly as it was ignited. Predictably, the soundtrack plunges us back to stale formula, with maybe just one tiny exception: compared to the pre-Viva Las Vegas soundtracks, this one is a bit more rockʼnʼrollish, with a larger proportion of upbeat, fast-tempo numbers, as if the Kingʼs corporate backers had finally woken up to the idea that rockʼnʼroll was finally back with a vengeance, and that it made sense to entice young audiences with material that their parents would find questionable.

Not that it makes any big difference. The corporate songwriters remain the exact same people, and for Roustabout, you donʼt even have an Otis Blackwell or a Doc Pomus anywhere in sight. The closest thing to an honorable classic that you find here is Leiber and Stollerʼs ʽLittle Egyptʼ, a three-year old joke tune originally recorded by the Coasters and specifically adapted for the movie (which, being a carnival movie, even had a character named ʽLittle Egyptʼ). Alas, since it is a humorous number rather than a rambunctious one, Elvisʼ deadpan delivery is far less efficient than the Coastersʼ original — Boots Randolphʼs sax is more of a hero on this tune than the King himself. At least they are still willing to let Leiber and Stoller into the picture.

Other than that, the title track is a speedy country-western romp with a moderately catchy chorus and a tiny whiff of genuine melancholy — but after that one and ʽLittle Egyptʼ, the album quickly becomes yet another bunch of hasty and uninspired re-writes, e.g. ʽHard Knocksʼ (ʽLetʼs Have A Partyʼ), ʽCarny Townʼ (ʽAll Shook Upʼ), and ʽThereʼs A Brand New Day On The Horizonʼ (okay, I donʼt remember exactly, but Iʼm pretty sure thereʼs some old gospel song upon which this one is based). Curiously, there is a fairly vicious anti-elite university rant (ʽPoison Ivy Leagueʼ) dressed up as some Appalachian work song, but this, too, is more of a novelty thing than a serious musical and/or social statement.

Overall, what can you really expect, I guess, from a set of songs written around the theme of an old-fashioned rustic carnival (clearly, the hottest thing in late ʼ64)? Could you imagine that a song called ʽItʼs Carnival Timeʼ could be a highlight of Elvis Presleyʼs career, no matter who wrote it and under which circumstances? It is actually quite amazing that the album still hit #1 on the charts, but this was the last straw: by 1965, American attention was finally whisked away by all sorts of new attractions, and a carnival theme setting for Elvis was definitely as far removed from the excitement of these attractions as possible. 

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Elvis Presley: Viva Las Vegas

ELVIS PRESLEY: VIVA LAS VEGAS (1964)

1) Viva Las Vegas; 2) Whatʼd I Say; 3) If You Think I Donʼt Need You; 4) I Need Somebody To Lean On; 5) Cʼmon Everybody; 6) Today, Tomorrow And Forever; 7) Santa Lucia; 8) Do The Vega; 9) Night Life; 10) The Yellow Rose Of Texas / The Eyes Of Texas; 11) The Lady Loves Me; 12) Youʼre The Boss.

General verdict: Perhaps Elvisʼ finest attempt at reinventing himself as an early Sixtiesʼ idol — for about fifteen minutes, sure, but it would be overkill to demand any more.


As if there wasnʼt already a lengthy history of ironic developments and weird embarrassments in Elvisʼ post-Army career, the Kingʼs camp threw in another one — for some utterly unknown reason, the soundtrack to Viva Las Vegas, possibly one of the accidentally finest movies from that period, was not released at all as a proper LP in 1964. Instead, one song was released as a single (Ray Charlesʼ ʽWhatʼd I Sayʼ, with the title track as a B-side!), and four more as a short EP, far from the most common format typically associated with the King. As a result, the final product flunked, and then it took about half a century to actually put together an official CD that would contain all the music from the movie. Quality control my ass.

Both the movie and the soundtrack were clearly intended as a desperate shot in the arm for Elvis, what with the British Invasion as well as numerous and ever more daring teen pop outfits on local soil threatening to bury the man once and for all. And for a very, very brief period it might even have seemed like it worked — in no small measure owing to the figure of Ann-Margret, the first of Elvisʼ female co-stars in a position to actually outplay the King himself: she was young, she was hot, and she was deliciously and confidently Modern-Girl to the core, next to whom Elvis could end up looking antiquated... and he was, yes, but also at the same time briefly rejuvenated and amped up to offer some tentative competition.

Even if you never saw the movie, or even caught a glimpse of Ann-Margretʼs iconic orange sweater, you can still feel the chemistry between the two leads during their two duets. Musically, both are generic — ʽYouʼre The Bossʼ is a lounge-blues tune from Leiber and Stollerʼs backlog, while ʽThe Lady Loves Meʼ is a Tipper-Bennett creation in the old-fashioned comic musical style. But there is a wonderful atmosphere of playfulness and sexy competition, with Elvis playing a bit of a naïve hunk and Ann-Margret being the seductively independent vamp. It is all rather kiddie level by todayʼs standards, of course, but watching this or listening to this brings on just the right mood vibe — playful, colorful, half-innocent and half-provocative — that was so unique to the early Sixties.

But what is far more surprising is that the average quality of the musical material used for the soundtrack somehow seems respectively upscaled, certainly so when compared to most other soundtracks surrounding it. Just take a look at the first three tunes on the finalized LP/CD. There is the title track, one of the finest Pomus-Shuman creations, whose insane tempo, furious (for Elvisʼ Sixties standards) lead guitar licks, and clearly enthusiastic vocals still make it proudly stand out — just look at all the innumerable covers released over the years, and even if the Dead Kennedysʼ version was clearly ironic and sarcastic, they still profited heavily from the loads of rockʼnʼroll energy planted in it by its creators.

The second track is a cover of Ray Charlesʼ ʽWhatʼd I Sayʼ — like any cover of that song, it fails to rise up to the fiendish levels of provocativeness of the original (no sex noises, for one thing), but when did we last hear Elvis covering Ray? With those bulgy sax leads, girly backing vocals, surf-style drumming etc., this is another attempt at converting Fiftiesʼ R&B into giggly early Sixtiesʼ teen entertainment, but quite a successful one. And then the third track, ʽIf You Think I Donʼt Need Youʼ, is a Red West-penned number in the style of Ray Charles — a direct stylistic rip-off if there ever was one, but performed with the same verve and fun as ʽWhatʼd I Sayʼ itself. And get this: itʼs a new soundtrack LP, and it begins with three songs in a row that do not suck. Oh, thank you, Ann-Margret. Thank you, Beatles. Thank you... Mr. James Bond? Whatever.

Of course, this sort of consistency cannot last forever — eventually, we are still treated to a set of sloggy ballads recycling old vocal moves (e.g. ʽToday, Tomorrow And Foreverʼ, with distinct echoes of ʽLoving Youʼ), subpar Latin dance numbers which are more clumsy than playful (ʽDo The Vegaʼ), hillbilly anthems (ʽThe Yellow Rose Of Texasʼ) and Italian serenades (ʽSanta Luciaʼ). Still, at least there is Joy Byersʼ ʽCʼmon Everybodyʼ, a song more likely written to accommodate one of Elvisʼ and Ann-Margretʼs dance routines than any other purpose, but still rowdy enough to fit in with the overall head-spinning nature of the album.

It would be ridiculous to insist that Viva Las Vegas and its atmosphere was a culturally significant counterpart to something like A Hard Dayʼs Night — neither Elvis himself nor the big machine working for him at the time could be capable of properly and believably capturing the genuine spirit of the early Sixties (and, of all places, Las Vegas was probably the least suitable one to try and do it). But at least they tried, and in doing so, accidentally struck a small spark of life, one that could perhaps be kindled further with the right people at the wheel. Unfortunately, if there is anything that this thorough survey of the Kingʼs lonesome road through the Sixties truly proves to the surveyor, it is that all signs of life in that period came by by accident, and nothing else. 

Monday, May 18, 2020

Elvis Presley: Kissin' Cousins

ELVIS PRESLEY: KISSINʼ COUSINS (1964)

1) Kissinʼ Cousins; 2) Smokey Mountain Boy; 3) Thereʼs Gold In The Mountains; 4) One Boy, Two Little Girls; 5) Catchinʼ On Fast; 6) Tender Feeling; 7) Anyone; 8) Barefoot Ballad; 9) Once Is Enough; 10) Kissinʼ Cousins; 11) Echoes Of Love; 12) Long Lonely Highway.

General verdict: The main problem about making a «hillbilly Elvis» album for Elvis is that Elvis was never really a hillbilly in the first place. Or maybe the main problem is just that the songs suck.

The Elvis camp response to the Beatles and British Invasion in general was this oh so thrilling movie about the US government leasing mountaintop land for use as a missile base, with Elvis facing a not-so-incestuous choice between Batgirl and Dodge Rebellion Girl. I have not seen the movie, but seems like he did choose Batgirl in the end, which is probably the best thing about the whole experience (the worst thing is that Elvis actually gets to play two roles — both himself and his cousin, for which the Colonel allegedly demanded two full salaries for his boy). Both the movie and the soundtrack are often regarded as one of the lowest points in Elvisʼ Sixties period, and while there is definitely quite a bit of strong competition for that, it is indeed hard to find any signs of redemption here.

Essentially, Elvisʼ role in this experience is to play the stereotypical nonchalant hillbilly with the stereotypical hillbilly attraction to oneʼs close relatives. The only way that you can really succeed at this is if you play the whole thing as much tongue-in-cheek as possible, but Elvis never had that great a sense of humor or irony, and there lies the rub — even if many, if not most, of these songs were probably written as corny joke tunes, Elvis delivers them with his deadpan face on, as if we were really supposed to emote over the fact that "this one boy loves two little girls", or that he is "just a Smokey mountain boy come back to the hills I love", or, most importantly, that "weʼre all cousins, thatʼs what I believe, because weʼre children of Adam and Eve" (!!).

Worse still, the soundtrack once again lacks even a single unquestionably great tune, an anchor such as ʽReturn To Senderʼ or ʽBossa Nova Babyʼ that could at least superficially steady and redeem the surrounding wreck. The title track, coming from Fred Wiseʼs workshop, was chosen as the lead single, but it is a rather poorly masked variation on Little Richardʼs ʽThe Girl Canʼt Help Itʼ, with a bunch of other rockabilly clichés thrown in for good measure, and although the band is notably tight and professional, there is not an ounce of genuine rockʼnʼroll energy either in the playing or in Elvisʼ singing — the man is very clearly bored out of his skull.

All the tracks are more or less evenly divided into generic ballads, generic rewrites of older pop-rock classic (ʽOnce Is Enoughʼ = an inferior ʽStuck On Youʼ), and hicky hillbilly stuff like ʽSmokey Mountain Boyʼ and ʽBarefoot Balladʼ; youʼd think Elvisʼ Nashville team would feel right at home with this material, but Elvis himself clearly does not, and there is no believing him when he pleads to "give me a honk-tonk fiddle with a guitar in the middle", because why should anybody give anybody something that he absolutely does not need?

In the end, the only song here that may be worth remembering is the final track, ʽLong Lonely Highwayʼ, which actually had nothing to do with the movie but was tacked on to fill up the LP, selected from the May 1963 sessions for an aborted LP. A Pomus-Shuman creation, it is nothing special melodically, just a fast ʽGot My Mojo Workinʼ-style blues-rocker, but at least it gives Elvis an excuse to flash his mumbled-bass-to-uplifting-baritone dynamics, providing this totally uninspiring record with a mildly inspiring conclusion. Other than that, well... the only thing you really have to keep in mind is that this album was released twelve days after ʽCanʼt Buy Me Loveʼ. Really, that is the only thing you have to keep in mind.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Godspeed You! Black Emperor: Yanqui U.X.O.

GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR: YANQUI U.X.O. (2002)

General verdict: Probably falls in the category of «noble slump» — a solid effort which pales in comparison with the obvious masterpiece and ends up feeling less powerful than it actually might be.

GY!BEʼs third (and last before a lengthy hiatus) full-length release is a fairly difficult album, and opinions of it are quite mixed — at the very least, it is safe to say that it hasnʼt gone down in history as an indisputable classic, like its predecessor, and yet you can occasionally find people ready to swear by it as an actual significant impovement over Lift Your Skinny Fists, and not just because they want to sound different (though thereʼs always that, too). For a band with such an instantaneously recognizable sound and such a rigid artistic conception as GY!BE, this polarization is pretty intriguing.

Arguably the single most important and definitive feature of Yanqui U.X.O. is its complete reliance on pure musical means to achieve its goals — no vocals, no field recordings, no creative overdubbing, just the band busy making music with its actual instruments. This comes across as a surprise, all the more so in the face of the albumʼs rather clear political message: both the title, where U.X.O. admittedly stands for ʽunexploded ordnanceʼ, and the cover art hint at relations between major record labels and arms manufacturers — and, with the album released in the aftermath of 9/11 and the intervention in Afghanistan (fortunately, the Iraq War had not yet begun at the moment), there are occasional anti-system elements, such as a hidden track with a cut-up and sampled George W. Bush speech at the end (guess we now know who the alleged "motherfucker / redeemer" might actually be).

This is a very good decision by itself — for those of us, at least, who believe that music should be allowed to speak for itself, without serving as a direct backdrop to other forms of, uh, artistic manipulation — but it does not solve the obvious problem of where exactly to go next once you have clearly hit your artistic peak. After the giant effort of Lift Your Skinny Fists, where it seemed that the very understanding that they were going after something truly monumental might have served as a source for inspiration, the band had to pay the true price for it by becoming prisoners of their own reputation. Had GY!BE been a smaller, and thus, more flexible outfit, they might have cracked this puzzle by choosing a significantly different musical direction. But with so many people in the band, they probably could not have reinvented the formula even if they tried to — too many brains to reshape, too much training to undo.

The result is that Yanqui U.X.O. is essentially just more of the same — without the elements of surprise, without nearly the same feel of monumentality, without (arguably) nearly the same number of strong, memorable main themes, but with the impression that the group may be somewhat maturing and deepening their craft as musicians. To me, of course, that is not a win type of situation, not even in terms of writing, because I find myself somewhat at a loss when it comes to finding new ways of describing the achieved effects. The base principles, after all, remain the same — lock onto a theme, build it up into a steady overpowering crescendo, climax, calm down, spend a bit more time to recover the expended energy, then rinse and repeat. They did this four times on the previous album, they do it just three times here, and something keeps telling me that they simply did not want to expend more money on a double-CD package: with accuracy and precision, the album runs for 75 minutes and not a second more.

Even with the formula already well-established, it seems there is a lack of ideas right from the start. ʽ09-15-00ʼ, for instance, takes about six or seven minutes to properly get going where it took ʽStormʼ only three of these; when the mournful neo-classical violin melody finally emerges as the main theme around which the battle forces begin rallying themselves, it is a strong and passionate moment, but it takes way too goddamn long to develop. It does not help, either, that the second crescendo seems like a rather uninspired repetition of the first, or that ʽPart Twoʼ of the suite is a six-minute long piece of pure ambience that does not even think of going anywhere. You can certainly visualize the whole thing as a musical battle, in which ʽPart Twoʼ represents a musical interpretation of the battlefield after the deed is done, but the whole thing is just way too meandering. Itʼs almost as if the lazy approach of Silver Mt. Zion on their latest album was negatively rubbing off on the entire band in general.

Things definitely begin to pick up with ʽRockets Fall On Rocket Fallsʼ, which is the bandʼs first, and fully successful, attempt to try out their crescendo principle on a waltz structure — actually, there are two distinct parts here, both of them good: the opening waltz is like an attempt to superimpose the atmospherics of OK Computer onto Johann Strauss Jr., and the second part is a dark, creepy, mildly Wagnerian build-up, very heavy on booming cavernous percussion and fuzzy bass tones and, indeed, quite suggestive of Wotanʼs and Logeʼs journey into Alberichʼs subterranean kingdom, though I doubt they themselves ever thought of it that way. In any case, ʽRockets Fallʼ to me seems like the unquestionable centerpiece of the album and the only one of its lengthy suites to fully deserve the 20-minute length.

Not that there arenʼt any good things to say about the third piece: ʽMotherfucker=Redeemerʼ starts out quite hilariously, quickly becoming... a disco-themed post-rocker, mayhaps the only one of its kind, and kudos to the band for managing to maintain the overall feel of mournfulness and impending doom while upholding the quirky dance rhythm all the time. There is a touch of irony here, and at least it feels nice to know that the band can do its crescendo schtick at faster tempos. Once the mad dance of destruction is over, it transforms into a slow, jarring, heavy, feedbacky mess of garbage sound — think Neil Youngʼs soundtrack to Dead Man as a potential textural and mood-wise predecessor — which is impressive enough for a couple of minutes. Alas, the song takes way too much time to wind down, and then there is ʽPart Twoʼ, which throws on yet another aggressive crescendo — the lengthiest of ʼem all — but fails to make a fresh point; it is more about making the album go out on a loud and aggressive note than anything else.

As you can see, itʼs not as if the band is creatively spent: it is more like it is thoroughly trapped in its own formula, with the potential to still occasionally squeeze something decent out of it, but on the whole it is a 50/50 chance of producing something curiously interesting and something that just triggers the been-there-done-that vibe once again. It is clearly a record made by masters of their trade, yet on the whole there is a whiff of failure about it — for all the monumentality, they do not try hard enough to expand into uncharted territory, even if ʽRocket Fallsʼ and the «mock-disco» section of ʽMotherfuckerʼ clearly show that such territory still exists, even within the set boundaries of the formula. 

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Syd Barrett: The Radio One Sessions

SYD BARRETT: THE RADIO ONE SESSIONS (1970-71 / 2004)

1) Terrapin; 2) Gigolo Aunt; 3) Baby Lemonade; 4) Effervescing Elephant; 5) Two Of A Kind; 6) Baby Lemonade; 7) Dominoes; 8) Love Song.

General verdict: The real symbol and star of this «live album» is its brevity — one song for each year of the artistʼs musical career.

This album was actually first released way back in 1987 on John Peelʼs Strange Fruit label, as part of a large series of radio recordings salvaged from Peelʼs archives — under the title The Peel Session, since, true enough, it contained all the five songs that Syd performed in person on the Top Gear show on February 24, 1970, amounting to a whoppinʼ 13 minutes worth of music. In 2004, the album was re-released as The Radio One Sessions after somebody scooped up three more performances from Bob Harrisʼ Sounds Of The Seventies, broadcast on February 16, 1971; terrible audience bootleg-level sound quality, but hey, when youʼre pining for live solo Syd Barrett, you just donʼt get to be picky, and at least you have the legitimate right to call the expanded, almost 20-minute long (!) album The Radio Sessions, with a plural -s, instead of The Radio Session, which is just so humiliating and depressing.

You cannot and should not expect any particular greatness or huge surprises from these sessions, for which (the first one at least) Syd found himself propped and backed by Gilmour on bass and keyboards, and Jerry Shirley on percussion. All the songs are significantly truncated, usually about one third to one half shorter than the studio versions, as if Syd had trouble performing them in full; he probably had, but he is in pretty decent form anyway — the singing and acoustic rhythm playing are in perfect order throughout, and if you didnʼt know the details, youʼd very likely just assume this was supposed to be a nice and relaxed «unplugged» interpretation of the more heavily and densely arranged studio originals.

The only new song is ʽTwo Of A Kindʼ, a very cute and «normal» bouncy Brit-pop number that might as well be mistaken for a Small Faces song — ironically, its authorship remains disputed between Barrett and Rick Wright, and since both are dead now, we shall never know the truth anyway, so I will just assume it was really written by Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane instead. Had the song been included on The Madcap Laughs, as Syd allegedly intended, it would have been the most instantly accessible song there... perhaps this is why it was not, after all. But it is always a pleasure to hear Syd sing sweet innocent Brit-pop in that gorgeous voice of his.

As for the three songs from 1971, it is hard to evaluate the quality of the performance just because the sound is so abysmal — hard to tell if the guitar is really so much out of key or if it is merely the effect of chewn tape. Its real historical value is that this is the last ever performance by Syd Barrett, the solo artist (he did have a couple quickly botched attempts to start up a new band in the next couple of years), so you can take the awful quality symbolically, as a metaphor for artistic evaporation, and leave it at that.

On the whole, as far as desperately salvaged scraps are concerned, Iʼm sure we have all heard much worse than this — and, after all, Syd Barrett is perfectly legit as somebody who deserves a cult following, and any cult following deserves to have desperately salvaged scraps, so I am definitely more glad that this little piece is on the market than, say, the umpteenth edition of Dylanʼs Bootleg Series or another from-the-vault Prince or Frank Zappa release. And any excuse to take a second to look back upon the short-lived genius of this man, another member of the «27 club» in all but number, is welcome, as long as it actually involves listening to his music rather than digging into the dark druggy details of the last years of his musical career. 

Friday, May 8, 2020

Elvis Presley: Fun In Acapulco

ELVIS PRESLEY: FUN IN ACAPULCO (1963)

1) Fun In Acapulco; 2) Vino, Dinero Y Amor; 3) Mexico; 4) El Toro; 5) Marguerita; 6) The Bullfighter Was A Lady; 7) (Thereʼs) No Room To Rhumba In A Sports Car; 8) I Think Iʼm Gonna Like It Here; 9) Bossa Nova Baby; 10) You Canʼt Say No In Acapulco; 11) Guadalajara; 12) Love Me Tonight; 13) Slowly But Surely.

General verdict: One excellent song, a couple nice moments, and an ocean of bland quasi-Mexican clichés from Elvis "El Toro" Presley, the Mariachi of Memphis.


With the Hawaiʼian subject explored to the very bottom, it was time to plunge Elvis into another, as of yet largely untapped pool of clichés and stereotypes — and so, welcome to Mexico, the land of mariachis, bullfighters, vino, dinero y amor. (Also rhumbas and bossa novas, though neither of the two is Mexican, but who cares as long as itʼs all somewhere south of Kansas?). The movie had Ursula Andress, the first and foremost Bond girl, as Elvisʼ love interest, which makes it very watchable for fans of Sixtiesʼ hotties. But the music, alas, features the exact same set of official composers — Tepper and Bennett at the forefront, followed by Weisman and Wayne, Bill Giant, Don Robertson, and precisely zero Latin American composers involved in the process, with the exception, of course, of the original composer of ʽGuadalajaraʼ, the only genuine Mexican song performed by Elvis in the movie.

Not that I am particularly offended by this next round of «cultural appropriation», since I am no more a fan of traditional Mexican music than of traditional Russian music, and from a purely aesthetic point of view, I donʼt know which one would be worse — having Elvis cover a bunch of authentic tunes or these cartoonish simulacra of the real thing, like the emotionally puffed-up heartbreaking tale of ʽEl Toroʼ or the fluffy moonlight serenade ʽYou Canʼt Say No In Acapulcoʼ. I guess this rendition of ʽGuadalajaraʼ is barely passable, but it does not even have the intentional comic value of the Beatles covering ʽBesame Muchoʼ — who really needs Elvis trying to step into the shoes of a Mexican mariachi?

Anyway, instead of trying to sum up everything that is wrong about the album (which is pretty much everything), let me instead try to be much more brief and sum up the few good things about it. First, ʽ(Thereʼs) No Room To Rhumba In A Sports Carʼ is one of the silliest innuendo-based tunes in the Elvis catalog — an obvious sexual joke, but at least it is a refreshing change of pace from all the other generic Latin American tropes, so thank you, Fred Wise and Dick Manning, for this piece of dirty clown action. Second, the two bonus tracks which were not part of the album, but tacked to the end upon the Colonelʼs insistence, are okay: ʽLove Me Tonightʼ is a decent piano ballad, not genius, but in the good old stripped-down tradition of ʽLove Me Tenderʼ etc., and ʽSlowly But Surelyʼ arguably marks the first appearance of fuzz guitar on an Elvis album — a blues-rocker whose start almost could be mistaken for a cover of ʽSmokestack Lightningʼ, though it does not truly progress anywhere beyond that.

Most importantly, of course, there is always the question of «that one song» on an Elvis album, and while It Happened At The Worldʼs Fair missed the mark, Fun In Acapulco does have ʽBossa Nova Babyʼ — another Leiber & Stoller classic, this time nicked from a year-old version by the Clovers. Stoller himself said he preferred the Clovers version, but there can be no serious objections against Elvisʼ cover, either. Itʼs fast, itʼs danceable, itʼs ironic and celebratory at the same time, itʼs got a pretty hot instrumental break, and it finds just the right tongue-in-cheek approach to tackle the clichés. It baffles me that no other songwriter here had managed to find a similar approach, but then, why should they when all the soft, mushy, cuddly, clichéd stuff was consistently found so acceptable by the industry people? At this point, people were flocking to the movies not so much to hear Elvis as to see him — the quality of the material used for the movie was far less relevant than the quality of the hairstyle.