Harum Scarum ( FTD / BMG )

With a great deal of moxie, BMG's Roger Semon and Ernst Jorgensen continue their expansion of the Follow That Dream release schedule to include deluxe reissues of more deleted soundtrack recordings. Although this music can no longer be justified as viable product at normal retail outlets, through Follow That Dream anyone can obtain the material on CD.

Housed in handsome, double fold out, 7" sleeves with full color information booklets, a "retro" design and more than a dozen outtakes each, these gorgeous packages are a real treat for the hardcore Elvis fanatic. The fidelity throughout is also remarkably clean. There's an old song about finding "where the sands turnin' into gold" - and that is exactly what these "bonus" Follow That Dream soundtrack discs achieve.

That said, "Harum Scarum" is a tough listen for anyone who cares about Elvis Presley as a significant recording artist. The LP, issued near Christmas 1965, may be the very first without one single worthwhile track. And despite being recorded in the cosy confines of Nashville's "Studio B," there is nothing to suggest the atmosphere of the great recordings done just a few years earlier. Presley's vocals are way up in the mix, while his rhythm section seems to be in another room entirely!

In the eight months since Elvis' last studio session, the pop landscape has changed, and the low standard of song craft is certainly not missed by Elvis. The February 1965 soundtrack sessions for "Harum Scarum" are taped in the midst of rampant Beatlemania. At the same time as the Beatles are creating classics for "Help," their second film, Presley slaves to breathe life into faux rock tunes like "Hey Little Girl" or lame Middle Eastern pastiches such as "Golden Coins." On Elvis' pop radio that month gorgeous numbers like the Temptations "My Girl" or the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" top the charts, and it must've cut to the bone working on garbage like "Shake That Tambourine."

Maybe he knows. Elvis fails to complete several vocals during these sessions, and almost half the released album features "cut and splice" vocal masters. On the third day Elvis tries "Harem Holiday" twice and splits -- these previously-unreleased takes find his voice still sounding excellent, but the man is uninspired. Clearly, those assembled understand this is a job, not art.

Still, even a factory job has its lighter moments. Responding to a question regarding tempo at the end of an outtake of "Animal Instinct," Elvis jokes that "there's a couple of places, I can't find it. But I'm looking." Another funny bit comes when Presley misreads a lyric of "Shake That Tambourine," which the group ultimately runs down after thirty-eight (!) takes. "'Teenie' feet, man I can't believe I said that!" exclaims Elvis, breaking up as only he can.

Roger Semon's role in locating a project's original photographic negatives is one of the highlights of this release, right down to the beautiful -- and corrected -- original LP cover image. The MGM film may be low budget, producer Sam Katzman was well-known as "King of the Quickies," but Elvis looks like a million bucks! Another interesting aspect to this deluxe FTD package is the booklet's new information on material submitted by Presley's publishing company. Many substandard tunes offered and rejected for "Harum Scarum" would reappear on later movie projects! No wonder Elvis felt like giving up, his own publisher didn't care enough to scout around for quality material.

Regretfully, Elvis will cut worse material in Hollywood, but "Harum Scarum" immediately lowered the bar in a banner year of pop music. Down, but not out, Elvis would salvage his integrity with gospel recordings the following year, and his 1968 TV Special would prove the talent never left.

[Johnny Savage, USA]