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Elvis, Nilsson, Allen releases reviewed

June 20, 2013
By MARK J. MILLER - Weekender co-editor , The Herald-Star

This week I review three new releases from Sony Legacy being released sometime this summer, including from King Elvis, Harry Nilsson and Paul Allen and the Underthinkers.

Harry Nilsson, "The RCA Albums Collection"

I love Harry Nilsson and his music. The breadth of the man's staggering talent is hard to comprehend. It's also harder to comprehend how he destroyed his voice over the years through abuse - one of the most naturally gifted pop singers outside of Frank Sinatra.

On July 30 Sony/Legacy celebrates the work of this amazing artist with a 17-CD retrospective of all his work on RCA as well as tons of unreleased material, including demos and songs never released. It's currently on pre-order status on retailing at $107, which is a steal when you consider the amount of material and quality of the work contained inside.

Many people think of Nilsson as the guy who sang a bunch of superb - and they were wonderful - pop hits in the 1970s such as "Everybody's Talking" - part of the soundtrack of the movie "Midnight Cowboy" - "Coconut," "Jump Into the Fire," "Me and My Arrow" and his most moving song, "Without You." What's really interesting is Nilsson, a prolific and unique songwriter, also was just as good at spotting and covering first-rate material by others - the members of Badfinger wrote "Without You," while Fred Neil wrote "Everybody's Talking."

Nilsson also wrote songs you've heard for other artists, including "One," which was covered by Three Dog Night, "Cuddly Toy," covered by the Monkees and "Ten Little Indians," covered by the Yardbirds.

Nilsson could be completely unpredictable, never toured or really performed live but was admired by artists such as John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Randy Newman and dozens of others.

His first album, "Pandemonium Shadow Show," contained his quirky compositions with his uncanny vocal instrument double- and triple-tracked to create sublime psychedelic-era pop masterpieces, including his covers of the Beatles' "She's Leaving Home" and "You Can't Do That," which contained references to no less than 22 other Beatles' songs.

That initial album caught the ear of Lennon and McCartney, two guys who could easily recognize pop greatness when they heard it. "Aerial Ballet" and "Harry" followed, two albums that were really made with no commercial intention in mind but were outstanding albums burning with Nilsson's unique songwriting and distinctive vocals.

Nilsson really stepped outside the mainstream when he recorded the superlative "Nilsson Sings Newman," a brave artistic move since both were relatively unknowns at the time. What's even more unusual is Newman played piano on every track. He followed that with another unusual project, "The Point!," a children's concept album that yielded a pop hit for Nilsson, "Me and My Arrow."

Show tunes, Tin Pan Alley, parodies, hard rock - it's was impossible to know what Nilsson was going to do next to the chagrin of his record label. However, Nilsson was about to release his most commercial album ever with "Nilsson Schmilsson," which produced the hits "Coconut," "Without You" and "Jump In to the Fire." The album is a joy to listen to even today, with Nilsson's operatic-like vocals at the end of "Without You" still producing chills up the spine.

The last really great album was "A Touch of Nilsson in the Night," with Nilsson covering songs from the Great American Songbook with Gordon Jenkins - who also wielded the baton for several Sinatra albums - conducting the orchestra. By the time of "Pussy Cats," Nilsson's album with John Lennon producing released in 1974, Nilsson's voice and health were in bad shape from too much partying and abuse, a lot of it with the former Beatle while both lived in Los Angeles. More tragedy was to follow, as Nilsson was deeply disturbed by Lennon's murder as well as wracked with guilt when Keith Moon, drummer for the Who, was found dead in Nilsson's London apartment in the early '80s.

Nilsson never really recovered, and his work suffered significantly, finally being dropped by RCA after the label could no longer count on Nilsson to deliver. He died in 1994, but the body of work he created for the label was stunning. Harry Nilsson was one of the most underrated American artists. Highly recommended.

Elvis Presley, "Elvis at Stax: the Box set"

"Elvis at Stax" chronicles the King's sessions in his hometown of Memphis from 1973 to '75, and is the last installment of Sony Legacy re-releasing the El's late-career work. The triple CD box set contains 28 completed tunes and 27 outtakes of these legendary sessions, which were easily the highpoint of the King of Rock's late-period recordings.

Elvis was back in the spotlight in the early 1970s, having charted big with "In the Ghetto," "Suspicious Minds" and "Kentucky Rain." While his voice clearly wasn't what it used to be, El could still be inspired with the right back up band and peanut butter and banana sandwiches - no, I'm only kidding about that.

But the fact was he did believe he was back on top with his resurgence and emphasis on touring and the end of his schloky movie career. Elvis went back in the studio in the right frame of mind and confidence for these sessions, which contain a mix of country, pop and R&B. And the result is impressive, with snappy arrangements and Elvis sounding more engaged and relaxed at any time in his late career. I especially dig "If You Talk in Your Sleep," "I've Got a Thing About You, Baby" and "I Got a Feeling in My Body" which remind me of the sheer daring and devil-may-care confidence Elvis displayed in his early years. The musicianship throughout is excellent, with the mojo from the Stax Studios keeping everyone, including the King, from sounding bored.

"Elvis at Stax" showcases the King in his last hurrah, and it's definitely worth a spin for Elvis fans. The box set drops Aug. 6 and is retailing for pre-order on for 28 bucks.

Paul Allen and the Underthinkers, "Everywhere at Once"

It was hard at first for me to pop this CD into the player, as Paul Allen is THE Paul Allen that co-founded Microsoft, so I'm thinking to myself, "vanity project."

When I finally got the courage to do so I was pleasantly surprised to hear music that didn't completely suck, partly due to the fact Allen really can play convincing blues guitar. Of course, it didn't hurt Allen has a lot of musical pals to help him make the grade, such Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart performing on the lead track, "Straw into Gold" - easily the best track on the album - along with other cohorts Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, Joe Walsh, Derek Trucks, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and even Neville brother Ivan.

Allen also supposedly wrote or co-wrote every track on the album, and while not every one is a winner, there are some highlights, and Allen, not surprisingly, has a pretty bitching band to back him and his guests up.

Sales from the CD also go to help fund the EMP Museum in Seattle, a museum donated to the legacy of Jimi Hendrix partially funded by Allen. For that alone, I give Allen an A-plus for bothering his buddies to put together an album that has its moments of sizzle. The disc is set to be released Aug. 6.

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