Elvis Presley’s “That’s The Way It Is” Reviewed
I began my ongoing run through Elvis Presley’s entire album collection by deciding to only review the 70s albums, and then double backing to the beginning of time. So, while this was actually my first review, it is, in fact, his fortieth album and my fourtieth review. Now that I know more, I have no idea what I was thinking of calling it his first proper album of the 1970s: what about On Stage??? One more thing, when do we reach American Trilogy?
While it might not be entirely fair to claim this is his first album proper of the 1970s, still, with eight tracks taken from the June 1970 that would provide us with most of the follow up album, Elvis Country in 1971, and four tracks from his legendary stand at the International Hotel in Las Vegas it feels major. The other three albums in 1970 were the live one from his February stand at the International and two discount albums from Camden so… yeah.
Despite the two Mann-Weill tracks that open both sides, this was the story of Elvis’ return to the studio. I took this from the Australian chapter of the Elvis Presley fan club (here):
“This was Elvis’ first substantial studio time since the now legendary sessions of January and February 1969 at the American Studios in Memphis. Elvis had entered those Memphis sessions off the back of a successful television special and had approached the sessions like a hungry fighter aiming to reclaim his title. This focus led to some of the finest recordings of Elvis’ career…
By June 1970, Elvis’ comeback was secured.
Lets take a look at what Elvis recorded at the Nashville Marathon and who played on the sessions.
Musicians / Technicians
Guitar: Elvis Presley
Guitar: James Burton
Guitar: Chip Young
Guitar: Charlie Hodge
Drums: Jerry Carrigan
Piano: David Briggs
Bass: Norbert Putnam
Organ/Harmonica/Marimba: Charlie McCoy
Engineer: Al Pachuki
Producer: Felton Jarvis”
35 tracks were recorded from June 4-8, 1970 and as David Adams noted in the superb article I quoted from above, while it was a a good session, Presley wasn’t as hungry for a hit as he was during the February 1969 Memphis sessions, he accepted material that wasn’t first tier and Producer Felton Jarvis (who had just quit his job at RCA to work fulltime for Elvis, both in the studio and on the road) didn’t challenge Presley the way Chips Moman had. Where was the “In The Ghetto” or “Suspicious Mind”?
The difference between the Memphis and the Nashville recording sessions is the difference between soul and country. Presley could sing both, but he was better at one.
The first release off the session was the sublime “I’ve Lost You”, a live version made its way onto That’s The Way It Is, and it was one of those marital strife horrorsongs he did so well. The horns and strings like aching hearts in the distance, before they take over and finally recede like all hope.
The album was a six track per side Middle Of The Road deep pop songs triumph of the will over mediocre material. Each side opened with a Mann-Weill song, side one with the somewhat also ran “I Just Can’t Stop Believing” and side two with the masterpiece “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”. Recorded on stage in Vegas within a day of each other, there was no way Presley couldn’t sing em too a standstill, the latter has a soulful edge and a countryish swing, it sounds like late 60s pop. “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” is proof of the man’s fearlessness. In front of an audience he drags the song down to a slurred horror before pushing it so far over the top you expect Spector waiting at the top of the hill. An immaculate take on the classic track. “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” is proof of his absolute supremacy over the greatest most overplayed tracks. But what missing is the pop chart move, is the song where he breaks into Elvis. Too much of the rest of the material doesn’t deserve his professionalism.
With the exception of “Patch It Up” nothing approaches rock and roll and the rest of it is songs for the broken hearted. “Twenty Days and Twenty Nights” is the sequel to “I Lost You” -more marital horror songs, performed live, with a somewhat annoying backing chorus. When you listen to vinyl, you flip from the Dusty Springfield cover to the Righteous Brothers cover that opens Side Two, it is a great moment and a great feeling, but then he drags you down to earth with “”Just Pretend” and “The Next Step Is Love”, synthetic country very very well sung. It is hard to give the country “Stranger In The Crowd” a hard time, a little over orchestrated, a little too clever, and a little skimmed milk, but it wasn’t “Shake That Tambourine”. It will certainly do the job but it won’t do more than that. And it isn’t that much better than an “Harum Scarum” outtake. Presley absolutely performs every single song with the absolute conviction and concentration a giant might possess. And if it doesn’t pay off with the piccolo on “The Next Step Is Love” it doesn’t miss by much. Side Two is a little better, “Mary In The Morning” is a lovely song, and it sets the stage for the following big end to the side.
If I sound crueler to That’s The Way It Is than the budget albums, that’s because I remember it being better than this. The movie and the deluxe versions gave my memory banks a run for their money. I remembered it better but even in this truncated form, I’ll take it and if I wouldn’t the last song is enough to sell it. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is everything Paul Simon could’ve have hoped and prayed for. Live in August 1970, Elvis begins very quietly, just the piano and strings for the first verse, giving himself so much room to soar. This is how years of Gospel pays off for you, it is pure dynamics, a holding pattern where Presley let’s the song move the mountain,. By the second verse he throws in a “yeah” before the chorus and the bridge holds out so much promise, you just hold your breath, three minutes in and he is still holding back. But the third time, Presley crushes it, towering above the song, he powers it into a triumphant tale of faith and hope and love, the story of how love lets us live. Tremendous. Only the original is better.