Street Sounds: Elvis gets the orchestral treatment

Elvis Presley with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: If I Can Dream is an orchestral reimaging or reimagining.

Just in time for Halloween, it’s resurrection time for Elvis! Here it’s an orchestral reimaging or reimagining, take your pick.

From the first track, Burning Love, it appears that some arranger went crazy on strings and trills. It makes a great rock and roll song sound silly. Elvis’ voice will always sound great no matter the context, but in this case, they neutered the backing track. Not cool.

It’s Now or Never sounds fine with its Royal Philharmonic treatment (done at Abbey Road Studios). The orchestral treatment takes the dreamy Presley vocal and adds more of a lush syrupy bed for it to luxuriate in.

This is an album for die-hard fans of The King. After all, how many more times does anybody need to hear Love Me Tender repackaged and pimped out?  On the other hand, the most engaging Presley releases of recent years have been releases of live Vegas and Madison Square Garden concerts.

These albums were well recorded live shows where Presley and his faithful band of ace musicians are kicking out the jams and having a good time.

The repertoire is fluid and tight and you get to hear the King of Rock and Roll get crazy, flirt with the ladies and joke with his audience. They (the albums) sound sweaty and electric.

Here on If I Can Dream, Elvis sounds disembodied. Even more so because his vocal has been removed from the original track and dubbed with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s a grandiose undertaking but there’s too much fluff and schmaltz to make an engaging Presley record.

Production-wise it’s lush and immaculate and the classic track You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling benefits greatly from the epic and shivery treatment that it receives. Presley’s saccharine soundtrack work of the 1960s (his low point) is channelled and somehow works for this song. Fever keeps that flow moving and features a sympathetic “duet” with Michael Bublé.

The strongest song on this album is Bridge Over Troubled Water. That’s where the choice of material, great vocal performance and orchestral treatment create a perfect storm of drama and grandiosity.

Another king, Duane Eddy, the once and future King of Twang, also appears and adds beautifully atmospheric guitar texture. It’s a stirring track that’s been thoughtfully produced and arranged.

Many songs here are best left in their original state (In the Ghetto, Love Me Tender, It’s Now or Never) and some just roll on in their maudlin way, so even an orchestral facelift doesn’t alter them. Others are just goofy, especially the cover of James Taylor’s Steamroller Blues. Bluesy it ain’t.

If I Can Dream is an ambitious album that sounds sweet but actually doesn’t add anything interesting to Presley’s output.  If anything, it waters down his impact and softens his edge. It would be a perfect inclusion onto an inoffensive and safe Christmas album list.

Dean Gordon-Smith reviews the latest music for The Morning Star every Friday.