‘If I Can Dream’ - Listening Review - by Bryan Gruszka.
There has been a lot of interest, both negative and positive, generated by the latest Elvis release, If I Can Dream, especially amongst Elvis fans. Some love it, others can’t stand yet another manipulation of Elvis’ original tracks. I am in the former camp, but I will clarify by saying that I love the CD not because of the music inside. I love it more because of the potential it has/had to bring Elvis to the forefront once again.
In my view, any CD that gives Elvis a #1 record (as If I Can Dream did in the UK and Australia) is worth the effort, regardless of what I personally think of it. After all, #1 records by someone who has been gone almost 40 years garner headlines and soundbites, and in today’s culture it takes a regular barrage of media mentions to get the attention of the younger set.
That being said, how is the CD itself? Well, I’ll start this review by saying that when I heard about this release my first thought was how well the CD would appeal to non-fans or casual fans. After all, I know I’d buy it, but I don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. New audiences matter, and they will be the ones to keep Elvis alive, so while I certainly thought the CD was good idea, I was curious about how other people might see it. Thus, I played it for my friend Laura, who got into Elvis through me.
Some background – I have been an Elvis fan since 1977, and love all areas of his career, most particularly the 1970’s. My friend Laura has been a fan for about six years now. Her favorite era is 1968-1973, with particular focus on That’s the Way It Is. She is not a fan of the 50’s on audio (although she does like watching Elvis’ 50’s performances on video), nor is she really familiar with the early 60’s. In general, Laura is more of a casual music listener in that she likes all kinds of music, but she rarely listens to actual words of songs. Rather, she responds more to the delivery than to the content. This applies to Elvis as well – Laura might not remember the words to all of Elvis’ songs, but the power of the vocals and especially the visuals really have an impact on her. She also tends to like what she likes and only what she likes. She’s not the type of fan that loves everything with Elvis’ name on it. She tends to ignore songs that she thinks she won’t like (like 50’s stuff), or that don’t fall into her favorite time period, unless accompanied by visuals.
Below are some impressions that we both had when listening to the CD together for the first time.
Me – When I first heard the violins I thought they were kind of odd and out of place, but after a few listens, especially in headphones, I could see how they made the song sound fuller. It even seemed to me that the song was faster, which was always one of my minor issue with it. In short, the more I listened the more I liked it, and it was a nice start to the CD.
Laura – Laura was never a fan of Burning Love. I’m not sure why, but it wasn’t her cup of tea. Thus, I was expecting her to sort of ignore the song, but instead she tuned into it right away, commenting specifically on how she liked the violins. I was quite surprised, but it showed me how a new approach could attract fans, even those who perhaps might have ignored Elvis before.
It’s Now or Never:
Me – I enjoyed this version, especially with the fuller sound. In my view, songs like this tend to benefit from a fuller arrangement, so while I felt that the song was close to the original, I also felt that there was an added atmosphere that enhanced it while not making it sound too orchestrated.
Laura – This is one of Laura’s favorite early 60’s songs, and she’s not a big fan of Elvis’ earlier songs. However, she didn’t notice much difference with the orchestration. She enjoyed it, but she also enjoys the original, so not much change there.
Love Me Tender:
Me – Never a favorite of mine, in any form. The 50’s version was one I always skipped growing up, and really only took time to listen to it after the release of the 50’s Masters in 1992. My personal opinion is that if this song had been released later in the 50’s or in the 60’s it would not have done much. In other words, it benefitted from being released in Elvis’ debut year of 1956. A product of its time.
This is also an example of a song that I think speaks against the views of the "let the originals speak for themselves" crowd. I think it’s simply too Spartan of an arrangement, and too simple of a song as is to appeal to modern audiences. It seems dated, for lack of a better word, not to mention the fact that it’s probably a song most people, fans and non-fans alike, are familiar with.
The If I Can Dream arrangement definitely improved the song in my view. I can say that I enjoyed hearing it very much, and have not skipped the song upon my repeated plays through the entire CD. The extra backgrounds are well done and not overstated, and complement the simple vocals.
Laura – Laura is definitely not a fan of this song at all. Although she has never put it in these terms, I’d say she finds it boring (something I can completely understand when looking at it from the perspective of someone who is not too familiar with Elvis’ music). In addition, the song reminds Laura of her friend from high school, who used to play the song for her boyfriend. It’s kind of like an in joke in her life and has never been much more.
That said, she really enjoyed the new arrangement, and found it "pretty" – she tuned into the If I Can Dream version instead of ignoring it.
Me – I’ll preface this by saying that I am not at all bothered by artificial duets or remixes of Elvis’ music. If that’s what it takes to get new people to listen and, more importantly to me, to get Elvis to the top of the charts then I have no problem with them. The only issue I’d have is if the new version are simply bad. This is not the case with Fever. For me, this was a weak choice of a song for inclusion unless it was a duet. The arrangements remind me of Sinatra’s or Dean Martin’s 60’s work with their swelling instrumentation. It had the possibility of becoming a cheesy lounge song (which, in some ways, Fever actually IS), but it didn’t. A classy presentation that I think works very well.
Laura – Laura likes the Elvis is Back album, and Fever as well, but doesn’t really listen to 60’s Elvis much, so Fever is not a song she’s overly familiar with. She loved this version, though, and was impressed with how modern it sounded.
Bridge Over Troubled Water:
Me – The standout song on the CD for me. Elvis’ vocals are so clear and upfront in the mix that they almost sound as though he is singing acapella which, in a way, he is. The arrangement sticks closely to the original and lets Elvis’ vocal speak for itself. Stunningly good in my view. A minor complaint is that the ending instrumentation perhaps doesn’t rise to the high levels of Elvis original and I miss the bombastic crescendo.
Laura – Laura’s favorite Elvis period is That’s The Way It Is, so it was almost a no-brainer that she’d like this song. She, too, found it to be the standout of the CD. It brought her to tears, as it did me.
And the Grass Won’t Pay No Mind:
Me – I found this song an odd inclusion. When I heard it was one of the tracks, I thought that perhaps the arrangement might bring something different to it. Alas, it was too close to the original to add anything new in my view. I still think this was an odd choice, given that it’s a rather unremarkable vocal (nothing fancy or powerful in it), and to be frank, the lyrics are kind of "sappy" for lack of a better word. It just seems ineffectual, even given its provenance as part of the American Sound Studio Sessions. This is another song that I think, if recorded at Stax or as part of the Jungle Room sessions, it might be described as a throwaway, but since it was records at American Sound it gets a bit of a pass. That said, I did find that the song flows well within the context of the CD, but it’s not one that will attract new fans.
Laura – wasn’t at all familiar with the song (she’s heard it before but didn’t remember it at all, which testifies to how nondescript it is). After hearing it she asked the same question I did - why was the song included? She said it was "nice" but really wasn’t attracted to it at all.
You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling:
Me – Another standout for me, with Elvis’ strong vocals really shining, although again I feel that the arrangement weakens the impact a bit. Close to the original so that the new arrangement really doesn’t improve the song, but I’m happy the song was included so that others will get exposed to it.
Laura – Again, a That’s the Way It Is era song, so no surprise that Laura enjoyed it. She liked the upfront vocals, but felt it sounded much like the original.
There’s Always Me:
Me – A great inclusion in my view, as it’s a powerful but overlooked song. This time, the arrangement did add to the vocals, giving the song a bit more pep and making it sound, to my ears, a little faster. A good showcase of Elvis’ vocals, too.
Laura – Not familiar with the song. She has heard it, but tended to ignore it because it sounds vaguely "country" to her and she dislikes any country music, even if it’s Elvis. Surprisingly, this new arrangement attracted her, and she really enjoyed it. She also loved the vocals.
Can’t Help Falling In Love:
Me – Again, another song close to the original, so while I enjoyed it I kind of felt as though more could have been brought to the table. However, I will admit that it flows well within the CD and it works. A pretty ballad and a tender vocal that the added instrumentation highlights.
Laura – Another favorite of Laura’s, and this version sounded the same to her as the original, which kind of speaks to my opinion on the lack of a really different arrangement.
In the Ghetto:
Me – One of the few misfires on this CD in my view. The arrangement seem out of place and doesn’t add anything new, but rather seems to echo the original in an artificial, cheesy pop way that somehow diminishes the impact of the song.
Laura – Laura had a similar opinion to my own. She likes this song and finds it moving, but thought that the new arrangement lessened its impact.
How Great Thou Art:
Me – I was never a big fan of Elvis’ original version of this song, so I was a bit disappointed that this was the version included here. There’s just not enough power in it for me, and I feel it was a wasted opportunity to not include a live version of this song such as the version from Live on Stage in Memphis (which could have been touted as a Grammy winning song). Still, though, I will say that the arrangement does augment the vocals and brings out the power in Elvis’ voice.
Laura – One of her favorite live songs, especially the Live on Stage in Memphis version. Laura is not a Gospel fan, but loves How Great Thou Art even since she heard it as part of Elvis the Concert. She was impressed at how well a Gospel song went over live. Thus, she was also disappointed that a live version was not included, but really enjoyed the studio version, much more than I did. Another song that brought a tear to her eye.
Me – The second misfire on the CD for me. I was expecting some hard hitting rock and roll accompaniment, but instead got something that I envision non-fans think of when they think of "Vegas Elvis" – it seemed cheesy and overdone to me, and right out of the synthesized pop world of the 80’s. Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh here, but Steamroller already had a good arrangement in my view, and this one wound up detracting from it quite a bit.
Laura – Laura found the song nondescript. She enjoyed it, but it wasn’t memorable, despite the fact that she likes the original. Nothing to write home about.
An American Trilogy:
Me – Another song that had to grow on me. I was quite disappointed at the hybrid version used here. I don’t see why the full Aloha version couldn’t have been used as opposed to a mix of ’72 and ’73. It’s odd that bits of Elvis’ vocals were replaced (particularly the ending, which is much less dramatic on this CD than the actual Aloha ending). That said, the arrangement was fine to my ears, and once I got over the disappointment at the version used I came to enjoy it more each time I heard it. The Duane Eddy guitar that some have criticized plays such a small role that I wonder why he even bothered, really. As with most songs on this CD, the arrangement is close to the original.
Laura – Although Laura is really not familiar with different versions of Elvis’ songs, Trilogy is one of her top two favorite Elvis songs of all time, so she noticed right away that the powerful vocal inflections of Elvis’ Aloha version weren’t entirely there. She was expecting a certain phrasing and when she didn’t hear it she was a bit let down, but she still loves Trilogy so she liked it regardless. Another teary eyed song for Laura.
If I Can Dream:
Me – I might be going against the grain here, but while I enjoy If I Can Dream, I do tend to skip it when listening to Elvis unless other people are listening with me. For me, this is a powerful song to play for others to convince them of how good Elvis was, and it’s got a great message. It’s a song I’d love to see played on a TV show or as part of some awards presentation, as I think it’s a fantastic showcase for Elvis, but speaking only of my personal favorites, I can’t rate If I Can Dream among them. Thus, I listened to this song with thoughts on how it might impact others. For me the arrangement was too close to the original for it to be sufficiently different as to provide a hook for new listeners. However, I still think the vocal performance and the words speak for themselves, so not much change may be needed. Also, many people in the US are familiar with this song because of its inclusion on American Idol a few years back, so perhaps it already has more of a fan base than I might think. I will also say that repeated listening, especially through headphones, really added to the appeal.
Laura – This is perhaps Laura’s favorite Elvis song, so she was going to like this regardless of the new arrangement. She did seem to think that there were more changes to the instrumentation than I did, but overall this one was always going to be a winner with her.
Me - Upon listening to the CD in order, I found it an excellent listen. I can see why the songs were placed in the order that they were, and I felt that the song order really enhanced the listening experience, much more so than listening to the tracks individually and out of order. I have listed to the entire CD several times and haven’t skipped any songs, which says a lot for the listening experience. Also, when listening through headphones, what the producers were trying to do with some songs (like Burning Love) really stands out. There is a fullness in the arrangements, and a layering of various sounds that one simply can’t pick up by listening on a stereo or in the car.
This is a CD that’s made for individual listening, but one that I can also see being performed live as part of an RPO concert, perhaps even with Elvis on video a la Elvis the Concert. One can hope that perhaps this was part of the original vision for this release and that, in the future, we might see Elvis exposed to new audiences through this collaboration with the RPO.
Laura – This CD exposed her to several songs that she had previously ignored, and in the case of songs like Love Me Tender and There’s Always Me, moved them into the realm of songs she will play more often rather than not play at all. Her reactions to some songs really sold me on the value of this CD for those who are not long time hardcore fans like myself. That, to me, is the major value of releases like this.
In summary, this was an excellent release that showcased Elvis while not relying on gimmicks or musical tricks as the main selling point. Its success in the UK and in Australia is excellent and impressive as well, given that publicity was not huge. Sadly, here in the US there was almost no promotion, save for on social media, and as a result the CD debuted lower than other recent Elvis releases like Elvis By The Presleys, Christmas Duets, and even the recent US Postal Service CD. It’s truly sad that the opportunity to have a top charting release was again squandered in Elvis’ home country.
Oh, and one final note – I wonder how many of those who criticize this CD as a money grab and a cheap endeavor, or even an affront to Elvis’ music would say the same about the live "Elvis the Concert" performances that have been done for many years now. After all, those show changed the backgrounds of Elvis’ music (not significantly, though, just like If I Can Dream), and in their most recent incarnation had completely different musicians backing Elvis. Are they an affront to his music, or are they a way of bringing the excitement of Elvis to a new audience? A small point to ponder.