Welcome To The Jungle: The Last Farewell (Venus, 2010)

To the delight of Elvis Presley fans worldwide, especially those who love the later period, Venus has unleashed their third volume of Graceland 1976 session outtakes as Welcome To The Jungle: The Last Farewell.

As before, a clutch of songs are laid out from start to finish, each one usually ending with both an undubbed and completed master take.  The third iteration of the series revisits Monday, February 2, 1976, the first of the now-legendary "Jungle Room" sessions, with three songs taped that day: "Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall," "She Thinks I Still Care" and "The Last Farewell."

"Men, you guys don't hold back, you know, on the chord changes, emphasize 'em so we know where we are," Elvis commands right off the bat before the first take of "Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall."  It sounds like Elvis is ready to go.

Well, maybe not quite.  The intimacy of the space is revealed in the midst of take 3, when the kitchen phone in the adjacent room rings.  "Cut," blurts Elvis.  "That yellow phone just rang," says producer Felton Jarvis.  "Damn telephone, turn that thing off, shoot it off the wall," jokes Presley.  "Recording session, shootin' off the wall."  The next take doesn't get too far, as a dog interrupts things.  "Shoot the dog and the phone, hold it," yells Elvis.  "Shoot the yellow dog!"  The group cracks up all over again.

Larry Gatlin, of the Gatlin Brothers and author of "Help Me," which Elvis cut at Memphis' Stax Studios two and a half years earlier, is responsible for the bleak "Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall," whose subject matter spoke to Presley at this time of his life.  "You guys, don't desert me on the very first part," asks Elvis before a take.  What a way to begin a session date.  The catchy title doesn't elevate the song above the level of a decent album cut, but Elvis gives it all he's got through the 5 available takes, most all of which have been previously released by the official collector's label, Follow That Dream.  The undubbed track is new, and sounds terrific here, far better than either the "alternate mix" RCA issued in 1985 or the 1976 master take, also included here.

Songwriter Dickie Lee's classic, "She Thinks I Still Care," a 1962 Billboard #1 Country hit and signature song for George Jones, merits the most attention of the evening, with Elvis and crew trying out several arrangements.  First they begin with a vocal introduction by the backing singers taken right off of United Artists 424, Jones' 1962 hit single, then segue into a nice, uptempo arrangement featuring Burton adding color with some vibrato guitar.  It doesn't last.  With the next take, 2B, they ditch the vocal introduction for a loping, funky arrangement in the same brisk tempo, with Glen Hardin's barrelhouse piano licks to the fore.  It's pretty good.  In fact, back in 1980, Felton Jarvis slipped in some of take 2B for his re-record of the track on his Guitar Man overdub project, a nice surprise.  Then in 1995, the 70s box gave us about three and a half minutes of the original recording.  On the Venus release, fans get to hear the full 5+ minute take, with a very long chorus fade that includes Elvis singing, "Whoa, son of a bitch, she thinks, thinks I ... "

The whole idea is dropped for take 3, and they revert to a more deliberate, respectful pace.  Maybe too deliberate.  Take 3 falters when the band plays too far back for Elvis' liking.  "Hey fellows, don't stop playin' on me, keep your rhythm," he tells them.  Although we miss out on takes 5 to 9, the renditions do not seem to deviate from from this compromise between the Jones original and their more funky remake.  The final result is decent, but adds nothing to what Jones accomplished 14 years earlier.

The collection, like the first night in the Jungle Room, ends with Elvis tackling Roger Whittaker's 1975 US Pop #19, AC #1 hit, "The Last Farewell."  This romantic, nautical narrative, to the quiet dismay of his musicians, caught Presley's fancy enough to run it down at Graceland, including the opening blare of a French Horn after the overdubs were complete.  In its unadorned form on The Last Farewell, it almost sounds like a decent song.  Almost. 

The audio quality on this CD is terrific, just as good as the previous Venus packages, and the cover art homage to From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis Tennessee continues, using a vibrant, superior color shot from the same June 1975 tour as the original 1976 album.  The liner notes in this series continue to boggle, with apologetic statements like "Today these problems are known as 'burn out syndrome' and treated accordingly, but in the 1970's it was not widely understood so Elvis was left to cope on his own" and "The truth is that Elvis did the best he could, often under difficult circumstances ..." and odd, tangental discussions of Elvis' interest in law enforcement.  On a happier note, the deluxe booklet continues to offer lots of color photos, with The Last Farewell easing up on the garish stage portraits from 1976 for other, tastier images.

Any Presley devotee following this series since the first installment will want this CD.  There will be very few opportunities, now or ever, to hear the man at home, yet at work, and in very good spirits.

[Johnny Savage, USA]