Reissued Elvis includes ‘necro-duets’

This week I take a listen to some newly reissued Elvis material from RCA/Legacy along with three vinyl reissues featuring neo-soul artists Maxwell and Sweetback.

— Elvis Presley —

“The Wonder of You”

Most readers of my column know I’m not a big fan of “necro-duets,” where an artist dubs vocals along with some other big-name artists long since dead. I think the reason I dislike them so much is because they always sound forced and artificial. It also seems like little more than an ego exercise as if to say — “Hey — I’m good enough to perform a duet with this famous dead guy!”

A lot of time that’s just not the case.

However, I’m definitely open to taking older art and “recycling” it, taking pieces of older stuff and sampling it into something new. That’s like cut-and-paste art and is the basis for some classic hip hop albums.

Legacy has done some outstanding reissues featuring Elvis, including taking some chances with the King.

This “new” Elvis Presley album includes the King singing lovely with his backing band at the time with newer overdubs by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This is the second time this has been done, telling me people are digging it.

I found myself really liking the first album, “If I Can Dream,” simply for the fact they cherrypicked some of El’s best vocal performances and added simple, organic and extremely tasteful snippets of the Royal Philharmonic. The results were surprisingly good, with the string arrangements totally unobtrusive to the main instrument, being Elvis’ voice.

Ok — so call it a “necro-dub,” but “The Wonder of You” picks up where “If I Can Dream” left off, with some of Elvis the Pelvis’ best vocal performances and subdued, tasteful and stunning orchestral touches that make you wonder why this didn’t happen when Elvis was alive.

“The Wonder of You” focuses less on El’s big, well-known hits for ’70s material featuring the master soul-mining newer pop material, and, many times, far surpassing the “original” versions. Elvis’ band at the time was top-notch in the studio, so that was an important element for this to work. Well-recorded and mixed, the songs stand by themselves.

But the absolutely astonishing string arrangements take these gems to an entirely new level, transcending these already-great performances and making them masterpieces.

I don’t know how they pulled this off, but it’s really that grand. The strings are, again, not cloying or syrupy but an enhancement that matches Presley’s vocal performances to a “T.” Some of these arrangements remind me of the great early ’70s Motown stuff by Marvin Gaye — they were meant to be there, and once heard, you can’t imagine them not part of the song.

Mostly drawing on material from Elvis’ “mature” period, these tunes made anew, particularly with “I Just Can’t Help Believin'” — my favorite — “I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby” and an overwhelming, spiritual tour de force with the King’s heartfelt rendition of “Amazing Grace,” which was stunning to begin with.

I also really dig the opener, which is surprising, since I never really cared much for the cheesy “A Big Hunk O’ Love.” But the orchestra makes it rock and brings it to life with a fabulous intro and symphonic swing that never sags. It’s really quite excellent studiocraft and a real treat to hear.

Others getting the symphonic treatment include “Suspicious Minds,” “Don’t,” “Just Pretend,” “Love Letters,” “Starting Today,” “Kentucky Rain,” “Memories,” “Let it be Me,” “Always on My Mind,” “The Wonder of You” and “Just Pretend,” a necro-duet with Helene Fischer, and my least favorite.

This album is a real labor of love, and it’s obvious it was crafted by arrangers and musicians who really understood Presley, picking tunes that would go well — seemlessly and flawlessly — with his outstanding vocal performances of the ’70s. They also went out of their way to really create arrangements where’s Presley’s voice is even more so the main instrument. And what an instrument it was — absolute perfection. This album will be a real eye-opener for those who dig the man’s talents. This album makes Elvis hip again, nearly 40 years after his death. Highly, highly recommended.

— Maxwell —

“Urban Hang Suite,”

“BLACKsummer’snight”

Recorded and released in 1996, “Urban Hang Suite,” one these two classic vinyl reissues, are the part of the genesis of the “neo-soul” movement, with new R&B singers like Maxwell channeling the past R&B greats of the ’60s and ’70s, adding a light hip hop vibe and creating something new.

Signed by Columbia mogul Mitchell Cohen on the strength of a demo recording, it was clear Maxwell was thinking big in the tradition of classic soul concept albums like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly.”

There’s a real sultry, laid-back and sexy feel to the realities of love in the modern urban environment. Ambitious, novel and real, “Urban Hang Suite” is a really great album that sounds absolutely delicious on vinyl. And Maxwell’s falsetto is sweet and tasty.

“BLACKsummer’snight,” released in 2009, is a more mature Maxwell still mining gold in the tradition. This is great stuff, and after an eight-year absence from recording, Maxwell was welcomed back with his unique take on a modern genre that sometimes leaves me cold.

— Sweetback —

“Sweetback”

This is kind of an oddball for Legacy to be reissuing on vinyl, but I like that the label sometimes takes chances. Basically the backing band for Sade, three of the members stepped out on their own and crafted an album dripping with soul, R&B, jazz, funk and light hop-hop elements. Released in 1996, Sweetback’s debut is smoky R&B featuring much of the same vibe found on Sade’s classic albums. Featuring many singers of the neo-soul movement — including Maxwell on the wonderful “Softly Softly,” any fan of the singer or of Sade are really going to dig “Sweetback.” It’s not an album I was familiar with, but I am now. Simply delectible.

(Mark Miller is co-editor of Weekender.)

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