Elvis Presley – Way Down In The Jungle Room [Tracklist follows] – RCA/Legacy 88985318111 – stereo double vinyl, TT: 76:40 ***1/2:
Vinyl release of Elvis Presley’s last sessions is welcome, but at times disappointing!
(Elvis Presley – vocals; James Burton – guitar; Charlie Hodge – guitar; John Wilkinson – guitar; Chip Young – guitar; Jerry Scheff – bass; Glen Hardin – piano; Tony Brown – piano; David Briggs – piano, electric piano; Bobby Emmons – electric piano Ronnie Tutt – drums; Myrna Smith- vocals; J.D. Summer & The Stamps – vocals; Kathy Westmoreland – vocals; Sherrill Nielsen – vocals)
In America, there was only one king, Elvis Aaron Presley. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, Presley moved to Memphis and eventually signed with Sam Phillips’ Sun Records label. He became the cultural symbol of Rock and Roll. With songs like “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Hound Dog”, “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Love Me Tender” he became a superstar. The rockabilly backbeat and rhythm-and-blues alchemy mesmerized American youth. More importantly, his electrifying television appearances elevated him to iconic status. Every teenager (including Bob Dylan, John Lennon and effectively all rock stars) wanted to be him. His ascension signaled the passing of the torch from establishment figures like Frank Sinatra to the rebellious youth of the 1950s and beyond. He became a huge movie star, augmenting his impact.
At the core of his success was a fanatical base of support. He enjoyed several hits with studio work, but his live performances (and subsequent albums) fueled the accessibility and connection to his fans. Even his late 1960s “comeback” was aided by a live concert release. His idiosyncratic lifestyle, attire and cool verbal speak continued to build on his legendary persona. His untimely death (again the stuff of legends) created a void in popular culture. For the next three decades, several albums (new and reissued) has been released, including seven Number One chart toppers.
The latest posthumous Presley release is Elvis – Way Down In The Jungle Room. Recorded in 1976, the vinyl album (there is also a 2 CD version) is a collection of in-progress studio recordings (some of the finished tracks were on other albums). The title alludes to the infamous, ornate room adjacent to the Graceland mansion kitchen. There is an overall relaxed, fun-loving looseness around the sessions. With a reliable lineup of backing musicians, Presley works through an uneven assortment of pop and country material. Side A opens with a slower tempo country groove number (“Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall”). It is an amenable song with some catchy chord transitions and a gospel chorus. To highlight the relaxed, spontaneous nature, the song is interrupted by a phone call and Elvis’ comical retort ‘…Shoot it off the wall…”. His vocals are very subdued. Things pick up (somewhat) on the great George Jones hit, “She Thinks I Still Care”. Unfortunately the are two times when the band stops. But Presley’s emotive voice modulation is effective. The final two cuts are forgettable, pop mediocrity. Elvis notes on the later (“Solitaire’) that he’d like to “… kill Neil Sedaka when I see him…” as he struggles with establishing melody pitch.
Side B is more coherent. The producers included more uninterrupted takes. “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” has some pop schmaltz (but with some vintage Elvis soul-belting), but the band is incorporated better. Perhaps the highlight is the Roy Orbison inspired up tempo country blues number, “Moody Blue”. Elvis and his band really connect here. “For The Heart” is the closest approximation to rockabilly, and “Hurt” is rendered in a near doo-wop arrangement. There is a bit of dramatic talking. The side finale “Danny Boy” is heartfelt, scaled down to piano and vocals, but a little over-the-top.
This album is marked by inconsistency, due to questionable source material and arrangements. On Side C, the undirected pop looseness of “Never Again” and the languid vibe inhibiting “Love Coming Down” slow the momentum. But the funkier rock arrangement on “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” is infectious and features a nice guitar solo and a deep baritone by Presley at the end. it is fun. Also, the second “She Thinks I Still Care” is rearranged to a tougher blues structure and Elvis’ just nails it. The final side is a microcosm of the entire project. A banal pop number (“It’s Easy For You”) lacks freshness. But “Way Down” is a bona fide rocker and bridges to the memory of a visceral Presley. “Pledging My love” has more doo-wop fun, and underlies the good times Presley is having. The overreaching good humor and joking in this sessions belies the upcoming tragic conclusion to his life.
Elvis – Way Down In The jungle Room has some very good moments. However, it is troubled by an inconsistent flow. Putting some livelier tunes on Side A would have helped. The sound is excellent . The mix of Presley’s voice with the instruments and backup vocalists is blended with care. Everything is clear, even the off-the-cuff asides. The stereo mix is balanced. This album will be appreciated by Elvis die-hards!
Side A: Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall – Take 1; She Thinks I Still Care – Take 10; The Last farewell – Take 2; Solitaire – Take 7
Side B: I’ll Never Fall In Love Again; Moody Blue – Take 1; For The Heart – Take 1; Hurt – Take 3; Danny Boy – Take 9
Side C: Never vAgain – Take 9; Love Coming Down – Take 3; Blue Eyes Cryin’ In The Rain – Take 4; She Thinks I Still Care – (alternate version) Take 2
Side D: It’s Easy For You – Take 1; Way Down – Take 2; Pledging My Love – Take 3; For The Heart – Take 4