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Honeymoon in Vegas (Epic)
By Allen Howie
It would be ideal if you could judge these cover versions of some of Elvis Presley's biggest hits on their own merits, without nearing the echoes of the originals. But Presley's stamp is so engraved on each that it's impossible not to draw comparisons. Still, each of the thirteen artists featured here manages to at least hold his (or her) own, no small feat in the face of such a daunting task.
The songs on Honeymoon In Vegas, the soundtrack to the film, fall into two categories: those that try to remain faithful to Presley's originals and those that serve as vehicles for the artist's own interpretation. What's fascinating is the number of successes each category has to offer.
Billy Joel, for example, delivers a reverent, near-perfect Elvis impersonation on "All Shook Up."
The only artist to get two tracks, Joel surfaces again later with a bluesy "Heartbreak Hotel," this time departing from Presley's original and moving the song uptown. His performance shows a nice use of dynamics, hard and nasty on the verses, low and lean on the chorus.
The award for the most dead-on performance goes to Ricky Van Shelton's startling "Wear My Ring Around Your Neck," which captures the young Elvis' force-of-nature voice in frightening detail. As in most of the songs here, a huge portion of the credit goes to the unnamed supporting musicians who are, sadly, excluded from the liner notes.
Amy Grant offers an appropriately subdued "Love Me Tender," the pristine arrangement perfectly matched to her delicate, hushed vocal. The serenity of the moment is quickly replaced, however, by Travis Tritt's manhandling of "Burning Love," capturing the steamy intensity of the original while leaving his own indelible mark.
The transitions on the record are almost as interesting as the songs themselves and nowhere more so than in the leap from Tritt's smoldering track to Bryan Ferry's unearthly "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" Ferry sounds less like the hurt lover in Elvis' version and more like a tormented soul risen from the grave— spooky and effective. Even though it brightens up a little towards the end, this track is probably not for hardcore Presley fans.
Dwight Yoakam tumbles into the tangled beat of "Suspicious Minds," losing the claustrophobia of the original but keeping its urgency intact. The remarkably retro backing vocals leave plenty of room for Yoakam 's twang to roam around.
Rising country star Trisha Yearwood tears off a feisty "(You're The) Devil in Disguise," coming far closer to approximating the young Presley's vocal attack than you might expect. Then Jeff Beck and Jed Lieber slide in with a greasy, electric "Hound Dog" that's nearly as hair-raising as the original, while Vince Gill's pure tenor glides through the gentle rockabilly of "That's All Right" with much of the same wide-eyed enthusiasm found in Elvis' version.
John Mellencamp's gloomy "Jailhouse Rock' forsakes the heady abandon of the original for a chains-and-chisel dirge that should intrigue Mellencamp fans and shock traditionalists. Willie Nelson, on the other hand, delivers a breezy "Blue Hawaii" that sounds like an outtake from his own Stardust album. Nelson makes the song his own, partly due to Don Was' sympathetic production and his choice of a lesser-known song, but mostly to his own voice, as singular in its way as Presley's.
The album closes with Bono's "Can't Help Falling in Love," the only song on the collection that doesn't appear in the film itself. Over a recording of an early Presley press conference, U2's lead singer moves from a David Bowie growl to a fragile falsetto, in a performance his admirers should enjoy.
Taken as a whole, Honeymoon in Vegas rises above soundtrack status because it works as a diverse yet coherent collection of memorable performances.