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Review: Elvis Presley ‘If I Can Dream’ with orchestra misses the mark

A new album adds orchestral support to 14 Elvis Presley recordings including "Love Me Tender," "Can't Help Falling in Love" and "It's Now or Never."

A new album adds orchestral support to 14 Elvis Presley recordings including “Love Me Tender,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and “It’s Now or Never.”

(RCA Records)

The arrival of “If I Can Dream -- Elvis Presley With the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra,” an album that posthumously grafts orchestral arrangements onto 14 Presley recordings, raises the question: Are we headed back to the bad old days in Elvisville?

Upon Presley’s death at 42 in 1977, his label, RCA Records, began issuing one compilation after another to meet the heightened demand around the world for his music, often with little regard for what made sense musically.

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There was “Elvis: A Canadian Tribute,” a gathering of songs he’d recorded by Canadian songwriters, and “Elvis Sings for Children and Grownups Too,” which collected “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear” and other playfully titled songs.

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Things improved considerably after archivist Ernst Jorgensen was brought in to supervise new compilations in the ‘80s, and the label issued definitive single albums and box sets documenting key aspects of Presley’s musical legacy.

Still, the old mind-set surfaced now and then, as in 2008 with the misguided “Christmas Duets” album overlaying Presley’s vintage holiday recordings with spliced-in new additions from a raft of country and pop singers.

The problem with the new set is that the organizing principle equates “bigger” with “better,” assuming that a boatload of strings, wind and percussion instruments automatically enhances Presley hits such as “It’s Now or Never,” “Love Me Tender,” “Burning Love,” “How Great Thou Art,” “In the Ghetto” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”

By and large, they don’t.

The liner notes include a loving letter from Priscilla Presley, his ex-wife who oversees his estate, suggesting, “[T]his would be an album Elvis always wanted to do. He loved the big sound and fullness of an orchestra.... Hopefully you’ll feel and experience the songs that will resonate even more, as it did with him, when he lived within the music as he delivered it.”

Elvis, however, wasn’t always the best judge of his own art, and his weakness for glorious excess— ever seen the Jungle Room at Graceland? -- was not just a professional shortcoming at many points in his career but also ultimately led to his downfall.

“Burning Love” was a surging rocker from the get-go, and bringing in swelling violins, violas, cellos and basses to replace the original recording’s signature melodic and rhythmic motif don’t help it burn any hotter. And the extra backup vocals just weigh things down.

The orchestra adds some sweetness to the countrified ballad “There’s Always Me,” which Presley recorded in 1961, but in the chorus it merely accentuates the excess of the Nashville-country backing vocals.

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Much of the power and charm of Presley’s recordings came from the intimacy he brought to his vocals. “Love Me Tender” and “Fever” derive a lot of their sex appeal from the simplicity of the accompaniment: spare acoustic guitar on the former; lean, stripped-down upright bass and finger snaps on the latter.

Pop singer Michael Buble takes his best shot at trying to match Presley’s sultry voice in the new duet created for “Fever.” Does that make it different from the original? Certainly. Better? No.

The title track remains one of the highlights of Presley’s dramatic 1968 NBC-TV “Comeback Special,” and songwriter Walter Earl Brown’s inspirational ballad was an ideal vehicle for Presley’s yearning voice. But the original performance already had a large band behind him, and the added orchestral forces just provide Vegas-like overkill.

Perhaps an orchestrator-arranger on the order of a Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks or David Campbell might have crafted arrangements that add new level of intrigue and dimension to Presley’s old material, but that never materializes here.

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On a technical level, the feat is impressive, the new orchestra and vocal parts blending seamlessly with the original recordings. But the whole project brings to mind a cornerstone exchange from the original “Jurassic Park” movie, in which the scientist behind the cloning of dinosaurs for a new generation theme park boasts, “Our scientists have done things which nobody’s ever done before.”

That’s when Jeff Goldblum’s character, Dr. Ian Malcolm, offers the reply that should be the operative thought concerning all things Elvis as well: “Your scientists [or, in this case, record producers] were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

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Elvis Presley With the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

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“If I Can Dream”

RCA

* 1/2 (1 1/2 stars out of 4)

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