So much has been written about Elvis Presley, the man. Perhaps too much -- every Elvis fan is interested (and often fascinated) by tales of the man's worldly exploits and ultimate self-destruction, but at the end of the day, it all comes back to "the voice." And although his vocal chords served him very well in the '50s and '60s, he never sounded as confident and majestic as he did during his "comeback" period (1967-1970), from which these recordings were made. The 1969 Memphis sessions are now legendary, revitalizing Elvis' career and providing him with some of the best songs and performances of his entire recorded output -- three of his best-loved singles, "In the Ghetto," "Suspicious Minds," and "Kentucky Rain," came from these sessions and can be found here in alternate form, alongside 17 other studio outtakes. And it's a measure of just how powerful and charismatic a singer he was that these undubbed and unfinished masters make better and more potent listening than 99 percent of the completed, fully polished, and released work by almost any other artist that you might care to name. The previously unreleased recordings (produced by Chips Moman) feature plenty of overlooked Elvis gems like "Any Day Now," "Only the Strong Survive," "You'll Think of Me," and the glorious "True Love Travels on a Gravel Road," and while it is obvious that the officially released versions of these tracks constituted the superior takes -- though sometimes only by the merest wisp of a nuance -- it is fascinating and sometimes downright spellbinding to hear Elvis in raw and primitive form, having fun in the studio and working out the song arrangements with the band. What's more, the nature of these tapes as unfinished, undubbed takes gives them a compelling edge all their own -- listeners are at least two layers deeper into the sound of his work than any finished master (which would have involved one or two layers of overdubs and a reduction to three-track and then to two-track for the production master) would ever allow.
So listening to this CD, you are not only hearing Presley working on and working out the songs in intermediate and alternate versions and approaches, but you're a good deal more up close and personal with that voice than you could ever get, short of being in the studio at the time -- and make no mistake, you know you're in the presence of an awe-inspiring talent and instrument from the first moment he does a straight take (after initially flubbing the opening) on "After Loving You," and it only gets better from there, on "Only the Strong Survive." This release from Follow That Dream (the official label for Elvis collectors) may be intended for the most serious fans, with its list price of over $30, but truth be told, the close, loud, and rich sound on these unmixed outtakes is also highly addictive -- hearing Elvis and the band so closely and intimately on "Stranger in My Home Town" or "Wearin' That Loved on Look" is a powerful experience, and the alternate take of "In the Ghetto" is similarly startling -- the whole CD is like sitting in on rehearsals for a live performance (which, in effect, is what these are, albeit in the studio). The second take of "Any Day Now" is totally uplifting in its nuances and impact, as you get to hear not only the singer closer than ever but also a fully exposed bass performance and some gorgeous gospel-flavored organ forward in the mix as never before. "Only the Strong Survive" in take 22, without chorus or orchestra, is fascinating as well, because of the way that Presley simply fills every hole in the take himself, accompanied solely by one electric guitar, bass, drums, and celeste -- it's no surprise how strong his concert work was at this point, given the sheer power he was putting out here in getting his songs and repertoire in shape (and occasionally breaking up and getting some laughs out of that process, too); he was at the peak of his ability and range as a singer.
"Suspicious Minds" doesn't hold up quite as well, but the rehearsal take and the second take expose Presley's voice -- a magnificent instrument -- so beautifully that the composite track is worth hearing. To think that these sessions were near the end of his vocal peak -- and came from the only studio sessions he'd done since 1955 on which his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, didn't dictate the song selection based on business and publishing interests -- makes the listening even more enjoyable. His next recording marathon in 1970 would prove to be the last time Elvis sounded like he really loved what he was doing -- but that is a different release and a different review. This release is the perfect companion to the Suspicious Minds double-disc set featuring all the original released tracks from these sessions plus some outtakes, or the box set From Nashville to Memphis: The Essential 60's Masters, as an essential enhancement to the culmination of his work in that decade. It could also turn the uninitiated and unconvinced into serious Presley fanatics -- listening to him in this setting and these sessions is a lot like mainlining the man's voice, and that's an experience every bit as addictive as it's meant to sound, and worth the asking price and then some.