Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Elvis Presley

  • From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis [RCA Victor, 1969] B+
  • That's the Way It Is [RCA Victor, 1970] C+
  • Elvis Country (I'm 10,000 Years Old) [RCA Victor, 1971] B-
  • Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas [RCA Victor, 1971] B+
  • Elvis as Recorded at Madison Square Garden [RCA Victor, 1972] C
  • He Touched Me [RCA Victor, 1972] B+
  • A Legendary Performer [RCA Victor, 1973] B
  • Good Times [RCA Victor, 1974] B-
  • Promised Land [RCA Victor, 1975] B
  • Today [RCA Victor, 1975] B-
  • Moody Blue [RCA Victor, 1977] B-
  • His Hand in Mine [RCA Victor, 1978] C
  • Our Memories of Elvis Volume 2 [RCA Victor, 1979] B+
  • This Is Elvis [RCA Victor, 1981] A-
  • Elvis: The First Live Recordings [The Music Works EP, 1982] B+
  • Elvis: A Legendary Performer: Volume 4 [RCA Victor, 1983] B
  • A Valentine Gift for You [RCA Victor, 1985] A
  • Reconsider Baby [RCA Victor, 1985] A-
  • The Million Dollar Quartet [Sun/RCA, 1990] Choice Cuts
  • 30 #1 Hits [RCA, 2002] A+
  • Elvis Presley Christmas Duets [RCA, 2008] Choice Cuts

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis [RCA Victor, 1969]
A double album, half of it recorded live in Vegas, which was a lot better in person. The studio disc is very strong, however, and the live part, containing the fantastic six-minute version of "Suspicious Minds," is good enough. B+

That's the Way It Is [RCA Victor, 1970]
His seventh album (three admittedly reissues) and third live LP of 1970 leans toward uptempo countryish ballads rather than the usual pop-rock eclecticism and proves that he can remember the words without cue cards. I know that's the way it is--but is it the way it has to be? C+

Elvis Country (I'm 10,000 Years Old) [RCA Victor, 1971]
A disastrous conceit, in which snippets of a "theme" song segue between tracks, makes it very hard to tell what happens to the Big Concept--Elvis Sings Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe, Bob Wills, Anne Murray, etc. Most of his recordings sound suspiciously casual anyway, like preconcert runthroughs, and these segues add a rushed medley feel. "The Fool" and "It's Your Baby, You Rock It" work, and "Whole Lot-ta Shakin'" works out. But Tubb's "Tomorrow Never Comes" is a horn-fed monstrosity. And somehow I don't think Elvis had his heart in "Snowbird." B-

Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas [RCA Victor, 1971]
I prefer the open-throated version of his awesomely pious sentimentality--"It's Now or Never," "If I Can Dream," etc.--to his more constricted attack, used here to signify high seriousness. But when he's serious about classic catchy pop like "Silver Bells" and "O Come, All Ye Faithful" it doesn't much matter, especially when you also get a transition from "I'll Be Home on Christmas Day" to "If I Get Home by Christmas Day." And here's what everyone was really waiting for--"Merry Christmas Baby," 5:45 of awesomely offhand dirt. B+

Elvis as Recorded at Madison Square Garden [RCA Victor, 1972]
If you want post-comeback Elvis, stick with TV Special and Memphis/Las Vegas. Unless your home entertainment center is equipped with a magic holograph and seats 20,000, this will not recreate the excitement of that justifiably fabled concert. In fact, it won't even come close. That's what arena gigs are about. C

He Touched Me [RCA Victor, 1972]
As an evangelical tool, white gospel balances the sweet and the sententious the way "Reach Out to Jesus" does, but too often it topples like "An Evening Prayer," and guess in which direction. Still, Elvis doesn't toss this stuff off--he hasn't sung with such consistent care since his comeback was at stake. And just like black gospel (fancy that), "sacred" music isn't always solemn--half the time it's fast enough to pass for rock and roll. In fact, for a counterpart to the airy intensity and passionate grace of "I, John" you might have to go back to the Sun recordings. B+

A Legendary Performer [RCA Victor, 1973]
I'm told this compilation is his best in years, but what does that mean? That people play it instead of A Date With Elvis or TV Special, from which all the "later unreleased" tracks were originally excluded? And the interviews are all right, but you can't dance to them. For collectors, historians, and popular culture majors. B

Good Times [RCA Victor, 1974]
It seems somehow fitting that EP's best collection of new material in years looks like a sorry Camden reissue. B-

Promised Land [RCA Victor, 1975]
Why is the new Elvis Presley album slightly better (even according to the singles charts) than, for instance, the last Elvis Presley album? Because Elvis decided to make like a big baritone? After all, he's often horrible when he chooses that move. But inspiration is funny, and on this one he'll make you care about, for instance, how a cliché like "Your Love's Been a Long Time Coming" is going to end. B

Today [RCA Victor, 1975]
Just in case you were starting to think there's no such thing as eternal life, I decided to acknowledge this, one of the King's thrice-yearly mixes of three (almost classic) killers and seven (not bad) fillers. As sloppy as ever, of course--you want he should be neat? B-

Moody Blue [RCA Victor, 1977]
Despite his capacity for undifferentiated emotion and his utter confidence with almost every kind of American music, Presley didn't automatically impart dignity to anything he laid his voice on the way such natural singers as George Jones and Al Green and Dolly Parton do. Originally a spoiled tough of omnipresent sexual magnetism, he deteriorated into a spoiled stud past his prime, so that while he was always sexy he wasn't always seductive. Whether he's turning it on ("Unchained Melody") or playing it cool ("Little Darling"), his miscalculations can be embarrassing. But he retains so much presence that he can make two Olivia Newton-John songs sound like country classics indifferently remembered. And when he hits it right, as on the first three tracks of side two, his sincerity, vulnerability, and self-possession are as potent as ever. It seems perfectly suitable that this shoddily conceived LP, pressed on blue plastic for gimmick appeal, should turn into his biggest of the decade on the strength of the ultimate gimmick. B-

His Hand in Mine [RCA Victor, 1978]
With its mawkish self-righteousness, the title epitomizes why we backsliders have permanent doubts about fundamentalist culture. As do the music's secular sellouts, overblown sanctimony, and simulated heavenly hosts--and the thought of RCA making money on two dead messiahs at once. C

Our Memories of Elvis Volume 2 [RCA Victor, 1979]
The idea is to remove the goop--strings, horns, choruses--from nondescript '70s album tracks, shuffle 'em up good, and call it "pure Elvis." But though Volume 1 was a bare-faced exploitation, this one happens to work. Maybe someone figured the potential market hated goop of any kind. In any case, the song selection is neat, including "Green Green Grass of Home," "Thinking About You," the lovely "I Can Help," and a previously unreleased "studio jam session" on Dylan's "Don't Think Twice" that is actually too long at 8:36. The mix is weird--I hear imperfectly erased goop ghosts on "Way Down," for instance--but as near as I can tell this is EP's best pop album of the decade. B+

This Is Elvis [RCA Victor, 1981]
Almost half of this two-record soundtrack comprises previously unreleased live tapes, usually of songs we have in studio versions--some forgettable (the two Chuck Berrys on side three), some historic (the Dorsey-show Joe Turner medley). In any case, the point is documentation, and for once I approve. Even trivia like "Viva Las Vegas" and "G.I. Blues" work in this context--in fact, it makes the context, just like the interviews (try Hy Gardner's) and intros (Ed Sullivan's). In short, buy The Sun Sessions (now midline-priced) and Gold(en) Records first, but this is the overview. A-

Elvis: The First Live Recordings [The Music Works EP, 1982]
In which the pre-RCA tyro finds a groove while making nice for squealing young country fans. What's amazing about the groove is that it's drumless, loose if not at all improvised, far more like blues and/or folk music than even his earliest studio work. What's amazing about the nice is how lascivious it is--when he invites his gal to "do what we done before" in "Baby Let's Play House," you can just about see her legs sticking over the back of the couch. Both features are more amazing on side one's relatively obscure covers than on side two's documented classics. B+

Elvis: A Legendary Performer: Volume 4 [RCA Victor, 1983]
Deemed a worthy addition to the canon by hagiographers who label the First Live Recordings EP a rip, this apocrypha--dominated by bent unreleased versions (and songs) that include a genuinely embarrassing duet with Ann-Margret and a priceless live "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" in which the King collapses into giggles before he's done with the first chorus--marks the unchallenged ascension of Elvis Unmasked among the faithful. It's a fascinating document. I'd rather listen to the EP. B

A Valentine Gift for You [RCA Victor, 1985]
I know he invented rock and roll, in a manner of speaking, but I have news for you--that's not why he's worshiped as a god today. He's worshiped as a god today because in addition to inventing rock and roll he was the greatest ballad singer this side of Frank Sinatra--because the spiritual translucence and reined-in gut sexuality of his slow weeper and torchy pop blues still activate the hormones and slavish devotion of millions of female human beings worldwide. Beginning and ending with the schlock masterpieces "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" and "Can't Help Falling in Love" and rescuing tracks from such renowned works of phonographic art as the Viva Las Vegas EP, the Spinout soundtrack, and the Something for Everybody album, this may not be a religious experience, but it comes close. My only real complaint is Peggy Lee's (not Little Willie John's) "Fever." Because in this company I really miss "It's Now or Never." A

Reconsider Baby [RCA Victor, 1985]
Peter Guralnick's contention that this blues singer is "unencumbered by myth or self-consciousness" doesn't survive the widely admired title (and lead) track. Especially by the late '60s, he's a white boy who knows he's getting fonky--and who doesn't surround himself with especially fonky musicians. So rhythms falter, and arrangements get out of hand. The great singer and hillbilly cat puts his weird stamp on almost every tune anyway. But despite the uncensored "One Night," and the salacious "Merry Christmas, Baby," only once does he outdo himself--on the unreleased Sun master "Tomorrow Night," which was already pretty ethereal in Lonnie Johnson's original. A-

The Million Dollar Quartet [Sun/RCA, 1990]
"Down by the Riverside" Choice Cuts

30 #1 Hits [RCA, 2002]
By my unofficial All Music Guide tally, this makes 385 Elvis comps, some as collectible as his soundtracks themselves, not one definitive. Although pursuing his pure essence is a fool's mission, only fools gainsay The Sun Sessions. A Valentine Gift for You is something to cherish. And there's use value in the five-CD The King of Rock 'n' Roll: The Complete 50's Masters, which duplicates 13 of these selections. But this chart-seeking slice-and-dice feeds off his schlock power. It validates his audience. And it suggests that his life was a continuous whole, not the tragically bifurcated mess of current convention. What holds it together? Think lightness, even on the supposedly feral "One Night." A+

Elvis Presley Christmas Duets [RCA, 2008]
"Blue Christmas," "Merry Christmas Baby" Choice Cuts

See Also