Released last week, the If I Can Dream CD includes a sticker on its cover touting:
ELVIS IS BACK WITH A BRAND NEW ALBUM!
Newly Recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
I wish that were so. Instead, If I Can Dream, of course, features familiar Elvis Presley vocals placed against new audio backdrops supplied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO).
Some Elvis fans are automatically against this sort of concept, which has been tried with varying degrees of success a number of times since the artist passed away in 1977.
Just to name a few:
- 1980’s Guitar Man album of overdubs (“remixes”)
- 2002’s “A Little Less Conversation” JXL remix
- 2008’s Christmas Duets album of artificial duets and remixes
- 2010’s Viva Elvis album of remixes and artificial duets
The underlying goal of most of these projects is to help attract a new audience for a singer no longer around to promote his own work or create contemporary recordings. A secondary goal, of course, is to give something “new” to his existing fans.
As for me, I have nothing against creating new art through the use of old. I try to approach each of these new takes on Elvis with an open mind. As long as the original Elvis versions remain available, then I think it is fine to experiment. In fact, it is often fun to hear Elvis in a new context, and if it brings along a few new fans, all for the better.
With all of that out of the way, I have to admit, the first time I played through Sony’s If I Can Dream on Friday, I was underwhelmed. Having one of the great rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time, “Burning Love,” preceded by an orchestral introduction seemed incongruous.
Should rock ‘n’ roll mix with orchestra? This is a debate that goes back to at least 1968 for Elvis fans – for If I Can Dream is hardly the first Elvis album to include an orchestra. Many of his actual recordings featured orchestral backing, including some of the ones on this very release. I have tended to be in favor of a full sound on appropriate songs.
I also love orchestral music in general, having been introduced to it at a young age by the Star Wars and Superman soundtracks of John Williams, which led me to start exploring true classical music in more recent years. Add that to the fact that I am a lifelong Elvis fan, and I should be a natural fit for this album.
Yet, from that first listen, I walked away thinking If I Can Dream was barely a mediocre effort overall. It seemed neither as creative as Viva Elvis nor as entertaining as “A Little Less Conversation.”
I tried If I Can Dream a second time on Saturday, and something snapped into place for me. The first time, I was thinking of it as an Elvis album to which the RPO had been added. For the second listen, I thought of it as an RPO album to which Elvis had been added. A subtle difference, I know, but it is one that made me listen in a different way.
I closed my eyes and imagined I was sitting in Cadogan Hall listening to the RPO perform in London, with a surprise guest vocalist by way of Memphis.
Suddenly, it did not seem weird for “Burning Love” to include an orchestral introduction, for how else would the RPO begin one of their performances?
Prior to this album’s release, I saw a promotional video of Elvis singing “What Now My Love,” with the RPO providing orchestral backing (a track not included here). In some ways, I would say that video did this album no favors, for the impression I had with “What Now My Love” was two different recordings of the same song playing at the same time. Fortunately, that is not how the If I Can Dream album sounds. Instead, the meld is usually natural.
For instance, Michael Bublé features in a duet on “Fever.” While I would have preferred a female counterpart for that particular song (say, Beyoncé), the duet is quite convincing from a technical standpoint – much more convincing than what I can remember of 2008’s Christmas Duets (not an album I often revisit).
Bublé turns in a fine performance, and their voices blend particularly well on “Everybody’s got the fever, that is something you all know…” as if they are standing next to one another. Think Elvis and Frank Sinatra in their real-life duet on the last lines of “Love Me Tender” in 1960. The novelty factor makes “Fever” the highlight of the album.
The distinctive sound of an Elvis contemporary and fellow rockabilly legend is included in new guitar work on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “An American Trilogy.” A nice surprise that I will not otherwise spoil here.
The orchestral concept works extremely well for several other songs. “How Great Thou Art” is stunning in its fully orchestrated version. The original is a true Elvis masterpiece, so there was certainly danger in changing anything.
“Love Me Tender” and “It’s Now Or Never” are also highlights, with the latter featuring Il Volo on new background vocals.
None of these versions exceed the originals (“There’s Always Me” comes closest), but that does not make them any less enjoyable as new experiences.
Not as successful are “In The Ghetto” (less is always more on accompaniment for this song, as guitar-only outtakes have proven) and “Steamroller Blues” (way too much going on).
The real puzzler of If I Can Dream is the choice of “And The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind,” an awful song in its original master version to which even the RPO can add no favors.
Beyond that, my only real gripes are with the “additional backing vocals” newly supplied by Miriam Grey, Shena Winchester, and Andy Caine on nearly all of the tracks. I would have preferred the original backing vocals (the Sweet Inspirations, J.D. Sumner and the Stamps, the Imperials, etc.) remained prominent in the mix, as the new ones only detract from the experience. Perhaps there was some technical limitation that necessitated this, or maybe it is just the nature of a pseudo-new album.
As emblazoned on its sticker, If I Can Dream offers up the promise of illusion delivered via the magic of technology. From that perspective, the album usually makes good on its word.
For a moment, if you are willing to accept the mirage, Elvis is indeed back.
Overall Rating: 7 out of 10.
If I Can Dream
Elvis Presley with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
- Burning Love [Elvis portions recorded March 28, 1972, Hollywood]
- It’s Now Or Never [Elvis portions recorded April 3, 1960, Nashville]
- Love Me Tender [Elvis portions recorded August 24, 1956, Hollywood]
- Fever (with Michael Bublé) [Elvis portions recorded April 3, 1960, Nashville]
- Bridge Over Troubled Water [Elvis portions recorded June 5, 1970, Nashville]
- And The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind [Elvis portions recorded February 17, 1969, Memphis]
- You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ [Elvis portions recorded live August 12, 1970, Dinner Show, Las Vegas]
- There’s Always Me [Elvis portions recorded March 12, 1961, Nashville]
- Can’t Help Falling In Love [Elvis portions recorded March 23, 1961, Hollywood]
- In The Ghetto [Elvis portions recorded January 20, 1969, Memphis]
- How Great Thou Art [Elvis portions recorded May 25, 1966, Nashville]
- Steamroller Blues [Elvis portions recorded live January 14, 1973, Honolulu]
- An American Trilogy [Elvis portions recorded live February 15, 1972, Midnight Show, Las Vegas, and January 14, 1973, Honolulu]
- If I Can Dream [Elvis portions recorded June 23, 1968, Burbank]
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra recorded December 10, 2013, and April 9-10, 2014, at Abbey Road Studio 2, London.