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Dangerous king

Music | Album succeeds in updating Elvis to 2010

Issue: "Biblical callings," Dec. 4, 2010

Beginning with the United States Postal Service's contest to determine which Elvis Presley-the '50s Elvis or the '70s Elvis-to immortalize on a stamp in 1992, the denominational schisms within the Church of Elvis have grown to include Hollywood Elvis, '68-comeback Elvis, Vegas Elvis, and even Fat Elvis.

But to Erich van Tourneau, the producer and arranger of Cirque du Soleil's Las Vegas Viva ELVIS show, there is only one King of Rock 'n' Roll. "I was mandated," van Tourneau told me, "to recreate the 'dangerous Elvis.' For me that's the way I look at him."

And now, thanks to the release of Viva ELVIS-The Album (RCA/Legacy), Presley fans unable or unwilling to make the pilgrimage to Sin City can experience 12 of van Tourneau's "dangerous" recreations in the privacy of their own headphones-or, better yet, their speaker-equipped living rooms. The jungle-fever drums that feature prominently in Viva ELVIS-The Album's dozen tracks cry out for the finest woofers money can buy.

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There was, according to van Tourneau, "a lot of magic" involved. First, he and his assistant Hugo Bombadier had to separate Presley's vocals from the original three-track masters in which they were embedded. Then they had to re-imbed them in the fresh sonic settings that van Tourneau, a 37-year-old, Montreal-based producer and one of Cirque du Soleil's "bank of creators," composed, performed on, recorded, and oversaw especially for the project.

The results? A freshly lint-brushed (and re-soled) "Blue Suede Shoes," a fully remodeled "Heartbreak Hotel," and a furiously re-kindled "Burning Love." Add to those the Brendan O'Brien-mixed "Suspicious Minds" (the album's first single and a stunning example of what Presley might've sounded like backed by U2), two Hollywood-Elvis reworkings that merit a reassessment of his long-disparaged soundtrack work ("King Creole," "Bossa Nova Baby"), a "That's All Right" that borrows from then supersedes Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life," an exciting opening aural montage called "Opening," and a cleverly deployed assortment of Presley's spoken sound bites, and you have what's unquestionably the best Elvis album of the 21st century so far and-seriously-maybe ever.

"What people have to understand," says van Tourneau, "is that even 'Lust for Life' is coming from that kind of Cab Calloway groove, you know? It's coming from the '30s and the '40s, but it's what kind of music Elvis listened to when he was young."

And what kind of music did van Tourneau listen to when he was young? "My parents were hardcore fans of Elvis Presley. Elvis' music was always playing around the house or at my uncle's place. I clearly remember the '68-comeback-special was playing there in loop."

And according to van Tourneau, his father has had no objection to his son's daring to bring Presley up to date. "He was totally approving of the idea of having Elvis back in 2010 but with a bigger sound, you know, one that could reflect the same impact he had in '54."

Timeless Voice

Speaking of re-experiencing impacts, Verve/Hip-O Select's new Louis Armstrong two-disc Hello, Louis! The Hit Years (1963-1969) will remind devotees of Satchmo, Elvis Presley's only serious competition in the single-most-influential-American-musician sweepstakes, that besides practically inventing jazz, he also took the vocal interpretation of Broadway-era songs to heights and depths undreamt of in Rod "American Songbook" Stewart's philosophy.

Comprising three LPs that Armstrong recorded for Kapp, Mercury, and ABC Paramount Records, Hello, Louis! contains not only Armstrong's inimitably charming, gravel-throated renditions of "Hello, Dolly!" and "What a Wonderful World" but also 37 other performances of equally effervescent good cheer.

Even his "We Have All the Time in the World," recorded when he only had two years left, feels timeless.

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