Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Elvis Presley - Almost In Love

Elvis Presley
Almost In Love


Released 1970 on RCA International
Reviewed by flashbackcaruso, 25/09/2010ce


Side 1
1. Almost In Love 2:54
2. Long Legged Girl (With The Short Dress On) 1:27
3. Edge Of Reality 3:14
4. My Little Friend 2:50
5. A Little Less Conversation 2:00

Side 2
1. Rubberneckin' 2:12
2. Clean Up Your Own Back Yard 3:10
3. U.S. Male 2:42
4. Charro 2:45
5. Stay Away, Joe 2:07

Is there a major artist whose album discography is less perfect and more frustrating than Elvis Presley's? Despite a towering talent and prodigious recorded output, his handful of genuinely great albums is swamped by dozens of mediocre movie soundtracks, cash-in compilations and missed opportunities. RCA have only recently attempted to rectify the latter issue by belatedly putting out albums that might have raised his artistic stock had they been released during his 1960s slump. Such was the haste with which the movies and their soundtrack albums were produced, there was no room for proper albums showcasing the studio sessions Elvis undertook to wipe his palate clean after recording yet another bunch of the inane, contractually required movie tunes for which he had little enthusiasm. Bizarrely, the soundtrack of one of his most successful movies, 'Viva Las Vegas', also fell victim to this overcrowded release schedule and, despite being half-way decent for a change, remained unreleased in album form for nearly 30 years. Recent compilations 'For The Asking' and 'Tomorrow Is A Long Time' prove that during the 1960s Elvis recorded enough non-soundtrack material for a couple of very decent studio albums had somebody thought to actually compile them back then. And in 1972, hit singles such as 'Burning Love' and 'Always On My Mind', which would have given semi-classic status to any new album they graced, ended up going straight onto budget LPs alongside odds and ends from a decade or more earlier. But I can't help having a soft spot for these cheapo albums, released from 1969 onwards on the RCA Camden and RCA International labels, as, for better or for worse, they were my introduction to an artist that still ranks among my all time favourites. I have fond memories of trekking across Putney common to our nearest branch of Woolworths, and browsing through the rotating rack in the window from which I'd select another 99p record containing 20-30 minutes of often randomly compiled music. Thus the first Elvis song I ever heard wasn't 'Hound Dog' or 'Heartbreak Hotel' or any of the early rock'n'roll classics which changed the face of popular culture. My introduction to the King Of Rock'n'Roll was 'Separate Ways', the 1972 title track of an album which was otherwise mostly made up of selections from the 'Elvis For Everyone' and 'Something For Everybody' LPs of the early 1960s. The compiler also had the good taste to rescue from obscurity the haunting 1957 EP track 'Is It So Strange?', still one of my favourite Elvis songs. Other early purchases included 'I Got Lucky' which made a surprisingly decent album out of the better 1960s movie tunes which had only previously appeared on singles or EPs, and 'You'll Never Walk Alone' which collected together 9 (10 in the UK) of his spiritual recordings. Other releases were less worthwhile. 'Elvis Sings Hits From His Movies' should really have been titled 'Elvis Sings Shit From His Movies' as classic late-60s cuts 'Guitar Man' and 'Big Boss Man' were used as a trojan horse to sneak some of his most execrable film recordings into an unsuspecting record collection. A similar ploy was tried the following year, with both sides of current single 'Burning Love' leading off another motley collection of movie tunes. But my album of choice here is 1970's 'Almost In Love', which is notable because all but one of the tracks had appeared on singles in the previous couple of years, and half of the songs are written and/or produced by guitarist Billy Strange, a veteran of studio sessions for the likes of Nancy Sinatra and The Beach Boys (including the 'Pet Sounds' album). Strange had been brought in to oversee the soundtracks of two of Elvis's later movies with the purpose of giving the music a more contemporary spin, and the results are mixed but always interesting. Little thought seems to have been put into the way this album is sequenced, so I have no qualms about dealing with the five Strange productions as a seperate entity before looking at the remainder of the tracks.

The album kicks off with 'Almost In Love' itself, one of three songs recorded for the movie 'Live A Little, Love A Little'. As an excursion into pure loungecore it's a real oddity in the Elvis canon: cheesy listening backing vocalists swoon behind his louche lead vocal while a laid-back bossa nova beat props up a cocktail-jazz backing group. It wouldn't sound out of place sandwiched between 'The Look Of Love' and 'Music To Watch Girls By' on a compilation; but, versatile as he was, the style doesn't really suite Elvis and it sounds like he no more believes in this than the likes of 'There's No Room To Rhumba In A Sports Car'. The song is pleasant enough but ultimately only of interest as a brief detour down a different musical avenue. In the same movie 'Edge Of Reality' soundtracks an unintentionally hilarious sequence which must rank as the squarest psychedelic trip of all time: Elvis dances stiffly with a girl whose dress keeps changing colour (naff sound effect thankfully not on the record) while chintzy coloured lights are projected across the sound stage. All that's missing is Bob Hope turning up in a kaftan. The song is a big production that takes itself very seriously indeed, all mystical lyrics, haunted backing vocals and dramatic orchestral riffage. Very easy to mock but, taken on its own terms, oddly appealing. The best song from 'Live A Little, Love A Little' is Billy Strange's most succesful attempt to align Elvis with the times, albeit more than 30 years early. 'A Little Less Conversation', a flop when released as a single in 1968, was destined to become a worldwide number one hit in 2002. Admittedly this was the result of a further attempt to contemporize Elvis's music, but it's interesting to compare the remix with the original and realise that the 1968 version, while a tad brief, packs the bigger punch. Everything is already there: a great drum break at the start, a funky bassline, a looping rhythm guitar riff, punchy brass and gospelly backing vocals, all in much greater clarity than the muffled JLX remix. Elvis does great work with the tongue-twisting, occasionally grammatically bizarre lyrics ('All this aggravation ain't satisfactioning me'). Top marks to the Davis/Strange writing team for getting the word 'procrastinate' into an Elvis song. Even better is their 'Clean Up Your Own Back Yard', released as a single from the soundtrack of 'The Trouble With Girls' (it's worth looking this up on YouTube to watch the sharply edited clip from the movie; a rare example of a decent film song being enhanced rather than killed by its on-screen presentation).* This is a prime nugget of country soul of the type more associated with the legendary Bobbie Gentry. (An alternate take of 'Guitar Man' actually opens with Elvis singing a line from 'Ode To Billy Joe', and Elvis's own attempt at this style is so successful that perhaps Bobbie should have recorded her duet album with him instead of Glen Campbell). 'Clean Up Your Own Backyard' rides along on a bluegrass flavoured soul groove, the gospelly 'Amen' and 'Hallelujah' backing vocals added to the single version providing an ironic counterpoint to the lyrics which preach against hypocritical preachers. If only all Elvis's soundtrack material had been this good. The final Billy Strange composition on this album is the theme to Elvis's final attempt at a serious Western, and earns kudos by being produced and arranged by none other than Hugo Montenegro. 'Charro' is dramatic and well orchestrated in a way that almost takes it into Scott Walker territory, but it might have been better sung by Scott himself; Elvis doesn't sound entirely comfortable with the material.

Of the remaining tracks, 'Long Legged Girl (With The Short Dress On)' is an above average example of Elvis's usual soundtrack fodder. This seems to have been a favourite of somebody at RCA Camden as it appears on several of these compilations. Taken from the soundtrack for 'Double Trouble', the song is as inconsequential as the title suggests but is given vitality by its brisk pace and surprisingly loud and aggressive guitar intro which inspires an enthusiastic 'Alright!' from the singer. At just 1'30 it doesn't outstay its welcome, but it must have felt somewhat out of step with the times when released as an unsuccessful single in 1967. The country-soul flavoured 'My Little Friend' is an overlooked gem from the prolific 1969 Memphis sessions which produced the albums 'From Elvis In Memphis' and 'Back In Memphis' as well as classic singles such as 'Suspicious Minds' and 'Kentucky Rain'. It appeared on the b-side of the latter, with which it shares a pained vocal style and an incisive arrangement. The piano player and backing singers are content to take a backseat for the most part, giving maximum impact to their strategically-placed contributions. Elvis's tone of voice is perfectly complemented by the string and horn sections which lurk unnervingly in the left channel, waiting for gaps in the vocal which they fill with bursts of spiky melodicism. It's a genuinely inspired piece of work which proves that the King didn't surround himself with mere hacks. And what an amazing opening line: 'My warped and worried mind resorts to wandering off to ponder things I never talk about.' The 2002 success of 'A Little Less Conversation' prompted a search by the record company for a similarly funky tune to provide a follow up hit. From the same sessions as 'My Little Friend, they found it in 'Rubberneckin'', which wound up being used both as a b-side and as part of the soundtrack of Elvis's final movie 'A Change Of Habit.' One could be forgiven for thinking the later reissue had also received the remix treatment to make it sound more like a modern day dance record, but someone back in 1969 seems to have had the foresight to sprinkle the arrangement with hints of sounds to come. It is unclear what 'Rubberneckin'' is, but there is a definite sexuality to Elvis's urgent vocal and the grunts and groans of the backing vocalists. 'U.S. Male' needs to be taken with a pinch of salt to be fully enjoyed, as the unreconstructed male chauvenistic lyrics are clearly meant as a parody of Redneck attitudes. It also raises the thorny issue of Elvis's tendency to take someone else's existing record and do a pretty accurate facsimile of it. 'U.S. Male' was written and first recorded by Jerry Reed whose 'Guitar Man' had already provided the blueprint for a recording that is far better known than, but almost identical to, the original. In fact, so keen was Elvis to replicate 'Guitar Man's distinctive sound that he hired Reed to play on it and several subsequent cuts. By all accounts Jerry Reed considered this the highest form of flattery and certainly benefitted from the association. And as with many of his straight cover versions, the natural authority of Elvis's voice makes the song his own. He has great fun inhabiting the character of the 'U.S. Male', adding his own interjections: 'Look it, baby' and 'I'm just telling it like it is, son.' Jerry Reed's guitar playing is incredibly nimble, the rhythm section has a real kick, and the Jordanaires and an organist add extra colour to the chorus. The highly rhythmic, country flavoured 'Stay Away Joe' makes for a fun, if slightly daft, closing song. However, it appears to have been included in error, since the same song had already appeared on RCA Camden's previous budget compilation 'Let's Be Friends' earlier the same year. Subsequent issues and CD releases replaced it with the similarly titled b-side 'Stay Away', an oddly affecting, partially successful attempt to shoehorn the melody of 'Greensleeves' into an uptempo pop song, very effectively featured over the opening titles of the movie 'Stay Away, Joe'.

The curse of Elvis Presley's uneven, chaotic discography is in some way what also makes it so rewarding. Unlike, say, The Beatles, whose perfectly-packaged LPs have long been set in stone as part of the great rock'n'roll canon, Elvis albums give the fan a chance to go panning for gold and maybe discover the odd overlooked nugget. 'Almost In Love' provides a useful snapshot of a particular period in his career and shows that, while the attempt to improve the quality of his movie soundtracks didn't pay any commercial dividends at the time, it at least hinted at his imminent return from the depths of irrelevancy.

NOTES:

* 'The Trouble With Girls' was directed by Peter Tewksbury, whose other Presley vehicle, the comedy western 'Stay Away, Joe' was often far more cinematic than the material deserved. But at least this provides some indication that attempts were being made to bring a bit more flair to Elvis's increasingly production line movies. 'Stay Away, Joe' was in fact an adaptation of a satirical novel from 1953, which had been a Book-of-the-Month Club selection of that year. 'Live A Little, Love A Little' was also based on a highly regarded novel, 'Kiss My Firm But Pliant Lips' by Dan Greenberg, and despite some cheesy moments (including the aforementioned 'acid trip'), and having a fairly low reputation even for an Elvis film, is exactly the sort of movie Elvis should have been making. Far more risque and surreal than his usual film fodder, it is reminiscent of the sex comedies Billy Wilder was turning out at the time. Wilder would have probably made it into a minor classic, but seasoned hack Norman Taurog manages some neat directorial touches of his own in what turned out to be his last film. 'Charro' is another 'might-have-been' in the Elvis filmography. A lone-cowboy Western originally offered to that genre's leading practitioner, Clint Eastwood, the script was received with enthusiasm by the film's new leading man, pleased to at last have another role he could sink his teeth into. Unfortunately by the time the film started shooting it had been revised beyond recognition, with most of the more adult content excised. Some violence remained, as did Hugo Montenegro's score, but it's a missed opportunity to restore some of the danger to a star who, when he first appeared on the scene more than a decade earlier, was considered a threat to the moral fabric of society.

RELATED DISCOGRAPHY:

Long Legged Girl (With The Short Dress On)/[That's Someone You Never Forget] RCA 47-9115 (May 1967)
US Male/Stay Away RCA 47-9465 (March 1968)
A Little Less Conversation/Almost In Love RCA 47-9610 (September 1968)
[If I Can Dream]/Edge Of Reality RCA 47-9670 (October 1968)
[Memories]/Charro RCA 47-9731 (March 1969)
Clean Up Your Own Back Yard/[The Fair's Moving On] RCA 47-9747 (June 1969)
[Don't Cry Daddy]/Rubberneckin' RCA 47-9768 (November 1969)
[Kentucky Rain]/My Little Friend RCA 47-9791 (January 1970)


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