Review : 'Elvis : Way Down In The Jungle Room' Sony Legacy 2 CD
Source: Elvis Australia
December 8, 2016
The cleverly titled 'Way Down in the Jungle Room' is another Elvis session anthology from RCA/Legacy that was conceived in the style of 2013's critically acclaimed 'Elvis at Stax'. It includes all the masters and many outtakes from the 'Jungle Room' sessions that took place from February 2-8 and October 29-30, 1976 at the 'den' of Graceland, Elvis' home in Memphis, TN.
Back then, nobody could have guessed that these sessions would become a rather sad part of music history as Elvis Presley's last studio recordings.
The songs that were recorded at those sessions ended up on the albums 'From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee' (1976) and 'Moody Blue' (1977), which were both still released during Elvis' lifetime.
I think 'Way Down in the Jungle Room' is the best presentation of Elvis' last studio recordings yet, even trumping FTD's excellent 'The Jungle Room Sessions' from back in 2000. Disc one includes all the 16 familiar master takes in great sound quality. The master takes have been mastered by Vic Anesini and they sound better than ever. The new sequencing of the 16 songs succeeds in creating a completely new listening experience. Stylistically similar songs follow one another, which really benefits the flow of the album. It starts on a high note with the rocking 'Way Down' and ends appropriately with the rather melancholy 'The Last Farewell'. The first disc sounds great but of course it features all the typical 1970s string and horn overdubs that sometimes drown out Elvis' vocals. The really interesting material that is the focus of 'Way Down in the Jungle Room' comes on the second disc, which also got the standalone vinyl treatment: 'The Outtakes'. These alternate takes from the sessions are newly mixed and they sound absolutely fantastic. They are sequenced chronologically in the order they were recorded, with the notable exceptions of the second versions of 'She Thinks I Still Care' and 'For the Heart'.
The Jungle Room + She Thinks I Still Care' (Take 2)
The alternate takes admittedly have all been released previously in one form or another but not in this excellent sound quality. These songs have never sounded better! Elvis' vocals are very clear and all the instruments sound a lot more detailed on 'Way Down in the Jungle Room' than they did on previous releases including the ones on the Follow That Dream collectors label. It probably would have been a good idea to put the alternate takes on the first disc as it was done on 'Elvis at Stax' as they are obviously the real focus of this release with their completely new mixes.
The outtakes have been remixed by Grammy winner Matt Ross-Spang, who gave these well-known songs a fresh treatment. The mixing was done using echo chambers and plate reverbs at Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis, TN. It is indeed a nice touch that Elvis' last studio recordings from 1976 were mixed at a studio founded by the man who discovered him 22 years before.
Engineer Matt Ross-Spang (far right) with Jerry Phillips (left) and James Burton during mixing sessions for Elvis Presley's 'Way Down in the Jungle Room'.
The new mixes have a very modern sound but with a retro touch. This new sound probably won't appeal to every fan, but I like it very much. Elvis' voice is up front and there is an amount of detail in the instrumentation that was not evident on previous releases. There are sounds on these tapes that I have never heard before. It's really fascinating what can be achieved with good mixing these days. Many of these familiar outtakes sound like completely new songs. Sure, some may feel there is too much echo on Elvis' vocals and I can understand that. We have never heard these recordings like this before and it sounds a bit unusual at first. I think the echo effect is fine overall, but I am not averse to hearing familiar recordings re-done in a fresh and creative way, and these new mixes were clearly done with great care and expertise.
So what is 'modern' about these mixes you ask? Well, the tracks now have a lot more 'punch' than they used to but without being overly compressed as was common on many of the major Elvis releases from the 2000s like the million-selling greatest hits collection 'ELV1S: 30 #1 Hits', which sounded considerably good for the time but did have a limited dynamic range (DR 9). The dynamics on the outtakes disc of 'Way Down in the Jungle Room', on the other hand, are very much intact with a rather good dynamic range of 13 and the masters disc is not bad either at DR 11.
All this technical mumbo-jumbo aside, what this means is that the mixes are nuanced and have a lot of 'life' in them. Although there is an echo effect on Elvis' vocals, which is what I refer to as the 'retro touch' of these mixes and some may dislike, they are very up front in the mix and the lyrics are easy to make out. The vocals are not drowned in the mix as is still the case on some of the master takes and was the case on certain outtakes on previous releases. The instruments sound very lively and detailed here. It's as if James Burton was strumming his guitar right next to you. Fans should be familiar with this rather direct sound from the recent FTD versions of 'From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee' and 'Moody Blue', but the mixes on 'Way Down in the Jungle Room' are even more direct and make you feel like you're sitting right there in the Jungle Room.
While the first disc sounds really good, as I've pointed out earlier, I had a real 'wow' experience when I put in the second disc and take 1 of 'Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall' started playing. With regards to Elvis' recorded output, I haven't felt like hearing something this fresh and new sounding in a long time. These mixes are really eye- or rather ear-opening compared to previous releases and listening to them makes me wish to have Elvis' whole 1970s output done like this. The fact that the booklet states the releases these alternate takes originally appeared on, makes it very easy to compare the new mixes to the previous ones.
Let's take 'Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall (take 1)' as an example to compare Ross-Spang's mix with previous ones. The booklet says it was originally released on FTD's 'Made in Memphis' back in 2006, so let's dust that CD off for a comparison. What's immediately apparent is that, unlike on 'Way Down in the Jungle Room', this track does not include studio banter or false starts on 'Made in Memphis'. Apart from that, this take sounds completely different on both releases, even though it's the exact same take. In direct comparison, the 2006 mix sounds flat and rather lifeless. The instruments don't have that certain punch that they have on the 2016 mix and Elvis' vocals also don't really stand out on the 2006 mix. In fact on the older mix, it sounds like Elvis' vocals are somewhat detached from the instruments and the backup singers. Not so at all on the new mix, where Elvis' vocals, the backup singers and the instruments form one unit. It sounds very good to my ears. While most of the lyrics can be made out quite well on the older mix, too, the new one really puts them to the front. It honestly sounds like a completely different song.
Now, take 1 of 'Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall' was also released on FTD's 2012 release of 'From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee'. How does that rather recent mix compare to the new one? Well, it sounds good and quite detailed, but in direct comparison with the new mix, it sounds dry, just like you would expect an outtake to sound like. Ross-Spang's mix, on the other hand, is done like a master would be done. It sounds full and detailed but still preserves the dynamic range of the original recording. One small drawback of the new mix is that it makes the tape hiss on Elvis' vocal track more apparent in certain quieter parts of the song, but it's a good thing that they didn't try to artificially remove it with noise reduction techniques that never really yield satisfying results. I won't compare every single track on the 'Way Down in the Jungle Room' outtakes disc with their previous incarnations, but I know all of the official releases of this material very well and I am positive that it has never sounded better. All in all I conclude that Ross-Spang's mixes manage to create a completely new and very good listening experience of the familiar Jungle Room sessions.
What I find also nice about this release is that the outtakes disc, which has a total playing time of about 76 minutes, includes about 14 minutes of false starts and studio banter between the actual takes. Some of the banter is even previously unreleased and therefore, of interest to collectors. It's commendable that RCA/Legacy included such seemingly unimportant bits on a major release that is mostly aimed at the general music-listening public as they show the human and funny side of Elvis. The dialogue snippets also prove that he was not always reluctant to record studio material, even at this point in his life. Elvis obviously still had fun doing it when he was in the mood. We hear him joking around a lot and teasing the musicians. Some of the previously unheard banter from Elvis include the following. Before take 1 of 'It's Easy for You' Elvis remarks something like: 'What are y'all doing? They're just crazy as hell. They just take off by themselves. The hell with it. Whether you're with 'em or not, it don't matter'. After a false start before Take 3 of 'Pledging My Love', Elvis says to pianist Tony Brown: 'Attaboy, Tony! Went stark raving apeshit, didn't ya? Thought we were doin' Little Darlin'.
The other more familiar studio banter that was included on FTD's releases before, sounds kind of new on 'Way Down in the Jungle Room', too, as the volume was turned up on the talking parts, which makes them more audible. As a result, there is also more hiss on these snippets of dialogue but you now can easily make them out and don't have to turn up the volume between the tracks to understand them. A funny highlight is this one: Before Take 3 of 'Hurt' Elvis begins singing 'I'm so huuuuuurt... Goddammit!' (laughter) Charlie: 'That's pain. That's hurt. That's pain'. J.D.: 'Now, he's serious'. (laughter). Before Take 1 of 'It's Easy for You' Elvis remarks: 'We need a red light in here or somethin'. You know? So these guys'll think they're in a whorehouse. They'll play better'. (laughter) In order to get the band loose before take 9 of 'Never Again' Elvis jokingly suggests to 'Bring out the booze... Grandma', and so on. The banter between the tracks gives the 'alternate album' of 17 tracks a relaxed atmosphere with a fly-on-the-wall experience for the listener. Elvis jokes around with the musicians but is still focused on crafting good recordings, giving the musicians instructions and tips. Elvis pretty much was his own producer and he knew what he wanted.
Nevertheless, 'Way Down in the Jungle Room' is the primary go-to album for me now whenever I feel like revisiting the King in the Jungle Room. The content sounds great and it is presented in a nicely designed digipak that contains a 24-page booklet with a newly written essay by John Jackson. I can very much recommended this release from RCA/Legacy.
Elvis Presley : 'Way Down In The Jungle Room' 2 CD
Disc 1 - The Masters
1. Way Down (2:38)
2. She Thinks I Still Care (3:51)
3. Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall (3:17)
4. Pledging My Love (2:51)
5. For The Heart (3:22)
6. Love Coming Down (3:07)
7. He'll Have To Go (4:32)
8. Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain (3:41)
9. Hurt (2:07)
10. Never Again (2:51)
11. Danny Boy (3:56)
12. Solitaire (4:40)
13. Moody Blue (2:49)
14. It's Easy For You (3:27)
15. I'll Never Fall In Love Again (3:44)
16. The Last Farewell (4:02)
Disc 2 - The Outtakes
1. Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall - take 1 (5:15)
2. She Thinks I Still Care - take 10 (6:30)
3. The Last Farewell - take 2 (4:15)
4. Solitaire - take 7 (5:37)
5. I'll Never Fall In Love Again - take 5 (4:04)
6. Moody Blue - take1 (3:53)
7. For The Heart - take 1 (3:55)
8. Hurt - take 3 (2:30)
9. Danny Boy - take 9 (4:02)
10. Never Again - take 9 - 3:56
11. Love Coming Down - take 3 (3:17)
12. Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain - take 4 (4:59)
13. She Thinks I Still Care - (alternate version) take 2 (4:26)
14. It's Easy For You - take 1 - (5:24)
15. Way Down - take 2 - 3:50
16. Pledging My Love - take 3 (5:34)
17. For The Heart - take 4 (4:13)
Buy From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee FTD Classic Album 2 CD Special Edition
Buy Moody Blue FTD Classic Alum 2 CD Special Edition
Unheard Elvis Presley 'Way Down in the Jungle Room' sessions coming in August
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