Welcome To The Jungle: Solitaire (Venus, 2010)

At long last, Venus, the upstart new label on the Elvis Presley "import" scene, presents one of the last frontiers of his magical studio years: 1976 and Welcome To The Jungle: Solitaire.  Although bits of Elvis' "Jungle Room Sessions" in his Graceland home have surfaced legally and otherwise, Venus throws down the gauntlet with the first of a proposed, multi-volume series.

It appears each disc will tackle a particular session in somewhat chronological fashion. And so it begins with Presley's work on the evenings of Tuesday, February 3-4, 1976 ("Solitaire") and Wednesday, February 4-5, 1976 ("Moody Blue").

"Solitaire," a morose, stagey ballad of alone-ness written by pop singer-songwriter Neil Sedaka, had been a hit for several different artists, but may've been noticed by Elvis via the Carpenters' summer 1975 top 20 single.  The Elvis album track issued the following summer was definitely "un-easy listening," as writers Roy Carr and Mick Farren once wrote.  Presley was clearly at a point where such material spoke deeply to him, and so he recorded them.  This collection presents both songs in chronological order, one after the other.

The core band (Burton, Wilkinson, Scheff, Tutt, Hardin and Briggs) may have rehearsed "Solitaire" before producer Felton Jarvis rolled tape, as Presley and the group sound pretty together from the start.  As with outtakes unleashed in years past, some of these alternates sound darned good -- especially takes 3 and 7.  Elvis isn't overplaying the verses, and the piano-led arrangement is much more effective, more delicate, than the album master's guitar and piano in unison.

"Looone-lee man," Elvis vocalizes after take 3.  He's still "feeling out" the introduction.  "I'm gonna kill Neil Sedaka," he jokes.  Presley knew the guy in that lyric.  The end result of this Sedaka weeper is less distinguished, with the arrangement awash in a sea of overdubbed strings that echo the grand pomposity of hit ballads by Swedish sensation ABBA, like "I've Been Waiting For You."

Things pick up with the next night, and Mark James' "Moody Blue," an up-tempo pop number with clever lyrics and a catchy chorus.  It's not a patch on earlier submissions from James, like "Always On My Mind" or "Suspicious Minds," but still one of the most commercial pieces of material brought to Graceland in February 1976.

Drummer Ronnie Tut innately understands that Felton is trying to quietly bring Elvis into a more contemporary pop-disco sound, again a la ABBA, and his fills propel "Moody Blue" in that direction with aplomb.  As with "Solitaire," Elvis paces himself from the start, holding back on finishing notes as he grows more familiar with the rhythm and the spritely lyrics.  "Ed Hill's got it," he quips to the Stamps Quartet member after just such a take.  The band also paces itself, addressing "Moody Blue" at a slower tempo in the early going.  It's as if everyone is holding back until Elvis makes his move.

Fans have heard some of these outtakes on various official Follow That Dream CDs, but here we get count-ins, extended outros or breakdowns, as when Elvis says "Blew it" after take 2 of "Solitaire."  All of this lends itself to the fly-on-the-wall feeling Venus obviously seeks to capture.  You are there, right with Elvis, whether he's failing to smoothly deliver the second verse on take 6 of "Moody Blue," explaining a subsequent, light-hearted burst of profanity with "Oh, I hate to read," or noting take 8 with "Eight.  That's it, that's my number."

Take 10 of "Moody Blue" is the master, and it's one of the rare examples of a 1976 studio track that gains from the later overdubs.  Released as a single A-side in November, it sounds full and vibrant.  If Elvis Presley is going to rock it, ABBA-style, this is the way to go.  In fact, James Burton's bright lead break only adds to the luster of this single, and may be the finest studio solo he ever cut with the man from Tennessee.

Welcome To The Jungle: Solitaire features a beautiful color cover that's a sly homage to the official 1976 album, From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis Tennessee, and also includes a beautiful, multi-page, full color booklet, with relevant photos from concerts of the time.  Regretfully, the liner notes are oddly devoted to technical and business issues surrounding the making of these "Jungle Room" songs, rather than offering any insight into the man, or this music.  They appear to have been translated into English, which may be why they are so lackluster.

It must be said this Venus release is not all-encompassing.  Despite what the back cover shows, "Solitaire" is missing take 6 and most of 10, and "Moody Blue" does not include takes 1 or 2.  Still, it sounds so good, despite the disparate sources (various tapes, acetates), it's truly an essential purchase for the Presley acolyte.  And there is apparently more to come!


[Johnny Savage, USA]