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Monday, Dec. 28, 2009

Elvis Presley

Elvis 75: Good Rockin' Tonight (RCA/Legacy)

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Each musical anthology of Elvis Presley, and one has been released every few years since his death more than 30 years ago, feels more and more like a referendum on the relevance of the man’s work. True, he altered the pop music landscape in the 1950s and may be the biggest-selling act in his label’s catalog. But times have changed plenty since the revolution he helped to spearhead, not to mention his demise. And commercial radio isn't exactly clamoring for the buying power of those who remember him in his prime.

Yet, the 100 tracks comprising Elvis 75 (the age he would have turned in 2010) demonstrate why Presley continues to be the only pre-British Invasion rocker so highly and internationally revered. Beyond the svelte and sexy ideal of his early years—and the drug-addled, obese figure of tragedy he became toward the end—exists a multicultural artist and lyrical interpreter with an often worthwhile, strangely fascinating career trajectory. To the credit of this four-CD, five-hour set, it could leave one wanting to hear more.

Presley's gentlemanly Southern humility balanced with a libidinal quality to find an audience in time for the birth of the teenager as social and commercial demographic. With that mix of swagger and decorum in his voice, he could span the wildest rockabilly and dirty (but not filthy) blues to faux Italian pop and orchestral productions. The generous, judicious track selection allows nary a misstep, even as his handlers routed him around the trippier aspects of ’60s rock (perhaps thankfully).

After a triumphant return to more adult sounds in the late ’60s, however, the ’70s became, as might be said of other aspects of his life, more inconsistent. For this era, 75 puts live album tracks and remakes of other artists’ recent hits on nearly equal footing with his still respectably charting singles. Some of those cuts sound like they were selected not only for the better qualities of his aging voice, but as premonitions of his passing.