The Once and Future King

This year has produced another inevitable batch of Elvis reissues, including The Home Recordings, a collection of private sessions cut between 1955 and 1966 that captures Elvis at the piano, tackling everything from Bob Wills's "San Antonio Rose" to "When the Saints Go Marching In." The sound quality is predictably rough, but there are some lovely moments across the set, especially an aching version of "After Loving You" from 1966, which he would return to three years later in a proper studio setting. And it's nice to hear him having fun with the cornball likes of "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds," and digging deep into his gospel roots on "I Asked the Lord" and "Show Me Thy Ways, O Lord."

Still The Home Recordings is less a collection of music than a historic document, like comparing the home movies shot by Bogie and Bacall with the work they did under the cinematic direction of Howard Hawks. Certainly if you care at all about Elvis, you need to hear this music. In its own way it yields surprises not unlike those scattered throughout The Million Dollar Quartet. But how many times you return to it will depend on the degree of your fanaticism.

Sunrise and Suspicious Minds: The Memphis 1969 Anthology, though, are miraculous documents of Elvis's two greatest periods, and stand alongside The King of Rock n' Roll and Walk a Mile in My Shoes as the finest Presley collections to date. Most of the music on both sets has been previously released: the former on the shabbily remastered The Sun Sessions CD and the first disc of the sonically superior King box; the latter on The Memphis Record, a disastrously programmed hodgepodge of his 1969 sessions at American Studios, and the last two discs of the From Nashville to Memphis box.

These new reissues rectify the sins of their predecessors. In addition to debuting "It Wouldn't Be the Same Without You," the flip side of Elvis's second informal recording from 1954, and some terribly recorded live-'55 sides that would be great if you could actually hear them, Sunrise presents the bulk of Presley's Sun recordings in glorious fidelity. Scotty Moore's guitar has never cut so deeply, Bill Black's bass has never rumbled with such sonic authority, and Presley's vocals soar with a clarity that makes this music as vital and moving as it was more than four decades ago. The vibrancy of "Blue Moon of Kentucky," the pile-driving rhythms of "Good Rockin' Tonight" and "Mystery Train," the spectral balladry of "Blue Moon" and "Harbor Lights," the commanding swagger of "Trying to Get to You" -- it all remains completely throttling both emotionally and physically, the finest rock and roll ever made.

But then, everyone knows that by now. The music collected on Suspicious Minds, however, is among the most overlooked and underappreciated by all but the most devoted of Presley acolytes, the ones who scoff at John Lennon's legendary comment that Elvis died when he joined the army. Recorded during fourteen sessions in January and February 1969, with Chips Moman behind the board and the American Studios house band at the apex of its power, Elvis produced his most diverse body of work. It's utterly contemporary, yet steeped in the traditions that always formed his vision: from sentimental pop to scalding blues, from pulsating Southern soul to gorgeous country and western. His command and presence is staggering.

The proof is spread across the 44 tracks that compose Suspicious Minds, especially the first twelve cuts on the first disc, which were originally released in '69 as From Elvis in Memphis, the King's greatest album and as masterful a longplayer as you'll find in the catalogues of Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, or the Rolling Stones. Amid the taut rhythm foundation of bassist Tommy Cogbill and drummer Gene Chrisman and the dazzling guitar work of Reggie Young, Elvis nails everything in his path. He turns Eddy Arnold's country standard "I'll Hold You in My Heart" into a smoldering blues exorcism, mutates Hank Snow's honky-tonker "I'm Movin' On" into a crushing soul stomp, and brings a ferocious, almost frightening intensity to the pounding "Power of My Love" and the tormented "Long Black Limousine." As a distillation of Elvis's myriad influences, From Elvis in Memphis and the accompanying singles (especially "Suspicious Minds" and "Stranger in My Own Home Town," both among his ten essential performances) rival, and just as often eclipse, anything from the legendary Sun sessions. After all those horrible films and all those horrid soundtracks, the '69 sessions prove Elvis could still tower over the landscape of popular music, redefining it as he mastered it.

And contrary to the babble of naysayers, Elvis didn't stop there. The Vegas shows from the early Seventies yielded some blistering rock and roll ("Polk Salad Annie") and autobiographical pop ("You Gave Me a Mountain," "Walk a Mile in My Shoes"). Similarly his studio work produced some glimmering, gamut-spanning gems: "It's Still Here," "I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water," "Fool," "Promised Land," "I Can Help," "Shake a Hand," "I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago," "Burning Love," "I've Got a Thing About You, Baby," and "Hurt," to name a few. It only takes one listen to the Walk a Mile in My Shoes box to realize Presley made terrific, often brilliant, music right up to his death. It's music filled with Sunrise's sense of discovery and trailblazing, and with the celebratory reclamation of his vision and gift -- of his crown -- that imbues every track on Suspicious Minds.

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