Friday, October 29, 2010

Elvis Presley: Viva ELVIS - CD Review

Written by General Jabbo

In honor of what would have been Elvis Presley’s 75th birthday, Cirque du Soleil set about honoring the King with a show in the city that became synonymous with Presley in his later touring years – Las Vegas. Taking a page from The Beatles’ Love, Viva ELVIS is a visual tribute to Presley with his music serving as the soundtrack. Much like with Love, Presley’s music has been radically remixed but unlike Love - which was entirely the Beatles’ music - Viva ELVIS finds Presley’s classic tracks augmented by contemporary musicians in an attempt to make his sound current. Purists may scoff at the notion as many of these tracks are considered perfect as is, but the more open-minded may be pleasantly surprised by some of this CD.

The opening of the CD serves as an overture, with a crowd swell; interview clips; sound bytes from Ed Sullivan; bits of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” better known as the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey and the new drum beat leading into the opening song, “Blue Suede Shoes.” The track does a good job of building anticipation for the show to come. “Blue Suede Shoes” blends distorted guitars with handclaps and harmonica giving the song a garage-rock feel while “That’s All Right” bears an eerie resemblance to Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” or Jet’s “Are you Gonna Be My Girl?” while still utilizing Scotty Moore’s original lead breaks. The tracks work surprisingly well, but it’s clear from the get-go that this is not your parents' Presley.

“Heartbreak Hotel” manages to combine three different versions of the song to create an entirely different listening experience. We start with Presley warming up his voice, followed by an acoustic blues guitar right out of the Mississippi Delta and Presley’s voice sounding like he was singing through a harmonica mic, but before the listener can get used to that, it jumps between the ’68 Comeback Special arrangement and the original 1956 version. This may be the best-realized remix on the album as the song lends itself well to this sort of treatment. “Bossa Nova Baby” plays up the Latin elements of the song, adding a trumpet solo, while staying fairly close to the original. Keen listeners will notice the guitar solo from “Hard Headed Woman” has been added here to great effect.

“Love Me Tender” has been given a modern acoustic feel and has been turned into a duet with Dea Norgerg. While Presley sounds great as usual, her voice just doesn’t work with the song and the parts where she harmonizes with Presley sound forced. “King Creole” has been given an unnecessary hip-hop treatment while “Burning Love” now sounds as if it could have been recorded by the Hives – not bad, but not really necessary either. Things improve with an instrumental piano version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and the closing track (and lead single) “Suspicious Minds,” which sounds like Presley channeling U2 with its jangly guitars.

Viva ELVIS is an interesting, often good (if unnecessary) reinterpretation of Presley’s remarkable catalog. Open-minded old listeners may find these new versions a fun twist and it may introduce Presley to an entirely new generation of fans. Those who want their Presley “as nature intended” would do best to stay far away from this CD though and listen to the original albums as this is nothing like the Presley they have come to love.

Article first published as Music Review: Elvis Presley “Viva ELVIS" on Blogcritics.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen - The Rolling Stones DVD Review

Written by General Jabbo

The year 1972 was a pivotal one for The Rolling Stones. They spent the summer as tax exiles in France, emerging from their drug-fueled haze to release arguably their greatest album, Exile on Main Street, and the resulting tour is considered one of their best. While on tour in America that year, the band filmed four nights in Texas for the theatrical release Ladies & Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones. Largely unseen since the mid 1970s, the film finally makes its official DVD debut in 2010 and is essential viewing not only for fans of the band, but fans of the genre in general.

From the opening “Brown Sugar” to the closing “Street Fighting Man,” this is a relentless, no-frills show. There’s no big production and the stage is dimly lit, adding an air of mystery to the proceedings. While the Stones may be about the big show these days, in 1972 it was all about the music, from the laid-back country of “Dead Flowers” and “Sweet Virginia” to classic rock staples such as “Gimme Shelter” and a rollicking “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” The band pays tribute to Chuck Berry with an authentic “Bye Bye Johnny” and Keith Richards takes the lead on his signature tune, “Happy,” sharing a microphone with Mick Jagger on the choruses. These days, when the band performs the song, Jagger isn’t even on stage.

Fans used to the Richards/Ron Wood version of the band will find an entirely different animal in the Mick Taylor lineup. While Wood is no slouch himself, he and Richards “practice the art of weaving” as they are fond to say, where the listener doesn’t know who is playing what. This is in stark contrast to 1972, with Richards laying a rock-solid rhythm for virtuoso Taylor’s melodic leads. Taylor shows he is equally adept at slide guitar as his bluesy licks on Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” and blistering leads on “All Down the Line” demonstrate. “Midnight Rambler” is the real highlight of the disc though. From the lock-tight rhythm of Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts to the breakneck tempos to the guitar interplay between Richards and Taylor, it shows why the Stones earned their title as greatest rock and roll band in the world.

Ladies & Gentlemen has been available on the black market for years, but never in this quality. The new DVD features restored video as well as Dolby Digital DTS 5.1 sound for both a great viewing and listening experience. The DVD also includes rehearsal footage for the tour, including “Shake Your Hips,” which is not played in the concert and interviews with Jagger from both 1972 and 2010.

For fans wondering what all the hype was about, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones is essential viewing.

Article first published as Music DVD Review: Ladies & Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

John Lennon - Gimme Some Truth (Sampler) CD Review

Written by General Jabbo

When the John Lennon catalog was first issued on CD, the original mixes were used — but so were liberal amounts of noise reduction. Then in 2000, the CDs were remastered — but also remixed, save for Double Fantasy and its sister album Milk and Honey which were just remastered — leaving fans of the original versions forced to seek out used CD versions or the original vinyl. Confused yet?
In honor of what would have been Lennon's 70th birthday, Capitol is attempting to set things right by reissuing the entire catalog again, this time with the original mixes and no noise reduction with the same production team used on the Beatles remasters from 2009 save for the 1980 material. The results as evidenced on the Gimme Some Truth CD sampler are by and large a revelation, particularly for the '70s material.

The biggest sonic improvement is by far on the Plastic Ono Band tracks. Fans used to the remix will notice the guitar intro to "Hold On" is truncated as on the original release, but there is a warmth here not present on the 2000 version. Lennon's voice is immediate and it sounds as if he is in the room with you. The original mixes on the Imagine and Sometime in New York City tracks recall the "wall of sound" effect Lennon and producer Phil Spector were going for with these albums, something not as evident on the 2000 versions.

The two Walls and Bridges tracks included — "Nobody Loves You (When You're Down and Out)" and "Bless You" are particular highlights and if the entire remastered CD sounds like this, fans are in for a treat. Where things get a bit dodgy is, ironically enough, on the most recent material featured here, The Double Fantasy/Milk and Honey tracks were loud and compressed in 2000 and sadly, they are here too. This misstep is the only thing keeping this from being a perfect reissue campaign.

The sampler also features two demos from the John Lennon Signature Box — "God" and "India, India" in surprisingly good fidelity and two tracks from the new release, Double Fantasy Stripped Down, an album not unlike the Beatles' Let it Be Naked, where the tracks are reduced to bare-bones versions to emphasize Lennon's vocals.

In an age of horrible-sounding CDs, these reissues are mostly a home run. Certainly the 1970s material is worth upgrading and Double Fantasy Stripped Down is an interesting listen. Fans of the 1980 material would be better served with original CDs or vinyl, however. Overall though, these CDs merit almost a 9/10.

Article first published as Music Review: John Lennon - Gimme Some Truth Sampler (Sampler) on Blogcritics.