Best New Albums 2013 – #14: Elvis Presley – Elvis At Stax

Running through the end of the month (with a short Christmas break), I’ll be running a post each weekday taking a look at one of my top 20 albums of the year, slowly working my way down to number one. Some I’ve reviewed previously for Bearded Gentlemen Music – I’ll provide links where necessary – and the entire list will eventually end up there, too. But for most of these records, this is the first time I’m writing about them at length, making this a chance to explain my choices in a little greater detail. Last year’s list is no longer online, but for 2011′s Best Canadian Music click here and for 2010′s list, click here.

#14: Elvis Presley – Elvis At Stax

For me, this was a year where I finally started giving Elvis his due. Really, I’ve never thought much about the guy, other than the clichés and a general acknowledgement that he popularized rock back in the day.

Things started to change for me when I read Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train (see my review here) and later when I read Peter Guralnick’s biography of Presley’s early years (again, see here for my review). But the real tipping point came with a CD I actually bought for my mom: Elvis at Stax.

Originally recorded in 1973, this captures Elvis at a fascinating point in his career. He’d just sold his back catalog to RCA and was in the midst of a divorce. But he was also recording what he wanted, with his best backing band and in one of the most famous studios in America. Little wonder that some great music came out of this, arguably the last great music of his career.

This CD is a mix of a handful of finished sides and a bunch of unused outtakes. And it’s mind-blowing to see how much of this music, the bulk of it very good, was basically shelved and forgotten about. And for the stuff they used? Buried on forgettable albums, back in the days when RCA used to issue multiple Presley records a year. But together, man, it’s a smoking album.

Let’s start with the finished takes: rocking versions of Promised Land and Raised on Rock, soulful versions of I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby and If You Talk In Your Sleep and a gospel tune: Help Me. They’re polished, slick and usually pretty good. And maybe you’ve heard them all before, but never all at once. That’s a nice plus.

But the unfinished stuff is where the treats lay. I Got A Feelin’ in My Body has a snakey, funky guitar break, a backing choir and Presley singing his ass off. He breaks into balladry on  cover of Danny O’Keefe’s Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues. He goes into blues on Three Corn Patches, a song written by his old songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. His backing band is in top form here, too.

Be warned, these are raw recordings: “Damn these takes are going by fast,” he says, breaking into laughter. Other times, songs break down and are re-started. But it’s rewarding. As you dig a little dipper, you can hear the finished sides get stripped away and see how he’d take different approaches and see what worked. A highlight: If You Talk In Your Sleep, with the horns stripped away and Presley’s vocals right at the forefront. Even if you’re not really an Elvis fan, this might just convert you.




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