Elvis Presley must be the most imitated singer on the planet. It is hard to separate the original from the copies: one wonders whether the countless impersonators are facsimiles of the original Elvis, or whether it was Elvis himself who, in his stunningly prolific and groundbreaking career, already repeated in advance all his future likenesses. When Andy Warhol made his series of Elvis silkscreen prints in 1963 from a publicity snapshot for the western flick Flaming Star, he had already grasped the cultural icon’s essential repeatability. In the pioneering “68 Comeback Special” Elvis sought to re-introduce himself to a public that was more into the Beatles and the British Invasion than his southern blend of blues, country, and rock and roll. It was a phenomenal success. The informal and unplugged format showcased Elvis’s skills at their best, and launched a new phase of career. Soon he’d be back at the top of the charts and on a series of tours, culminating in the spectacular 1973 “Aloha from Hawaii” concert viewed by a billion and a half people planetwide. The conceptual comedian Andy Kaufman’s Elvis imitation was reportedly the singer’s favorite—not only is the performance uncannily spot-on, but it’s brilliantly ironic: an virtuoso act of mimicry by a performer whose career was itself an elaborate and never quite unmasked series of personas and put-ons. And then there are the scores of more straightforward impersonators, from the talented to the buffoonish, covering everything from his raw early days to the kitschy final period: these Elvises are ‘Elvis more than Elvis’, exaggerated versions of the King in all his entertaining glory.
Intervening in this history of remakes, repetitions, copies, and covers, Vesna sheds a new light on Elvis’ musical achievement by daring the exact opposite: hers is a ‘less-than-Elvis’, an Elvis from which is subtracted the rockabilly showmanship, the swooning vocals, and the popular arrangements, an Elvis stripped down and rearranged in a truly unexpected, and compelling, way. “With Suspicious Minds” is an experimental and ironical take on the King of rock and roll’s legacy, a jazz album with an improvisational quality and a light, almost effortless, lyrical touch.
The sound is the result of a curious mix. The distinctive contributions of three idiosyncratic Berlin-based jazz musicians combine in a complex way with Vesna’s cool vocals (herself a Croatian pop star, now performing a distinctly un-pop version of the great pop idol). Her enunciation is precise but casual. A little less swagger and a little more conversation: one listens again to the poetry of the verses, now that they are set in a very different musical context. When Elvis recites “I wonder if you’re lonesome tonight/ You know someone said that the world’s a stage/ And each must play a part/ Fate had me playing in love you as my sweet heart,” it’s the romance and the emotion we hear, buoyed by the lilting hums of the backup choir. But when Vesna says “I wonder if you’re lonesome tonight/ You know someone said that the world’s a stage/ And each must play a part/ Fate had me playing a lover with you as my sweet heart,” there’s only a lonely trumpet riffing behind her—with the musical space a bit broken down, and a little more emptiness all around, the emphasis is on alienation and ‘playing a part’. But the real conversation going on in these reinvented songs isn’t in the texts or the voice per se, but in the playful back-and-forth between the vocals and instruments. Elvis is a soloist, a virtuoso playing on his guitar or leading the band. Here the musical elements have a relative autonomy, and the canonical pop setup of a massive vocalist backed by catchy instrumentals cleverly twisted. Vesna and the band members are much more of an ensemble. There’s a real dialogue between the musicians, each of whom has his or her unique line. Sometimes this takes you by surprise. The slow and deliberate voicing of the first stanza of “Falling in Love with You” is suddenly punctuated by a twanging bass; a fast paced and chaotic jam session sputters into “Love Letters Straight from the Heart”; the phrases in “Blue Moon” alternate between smooth voice with brushed drum sounds and short bursts from a dissonant horn. The voice is also treated as an instrument, which hums and whistles and speaks and softly shrieks. This is not your father’s (or grandfather’s) Elvis, but the novel arrangements that unsettle your usual listening habits quickly draw you in by virtue of their intricate texture and crackling dynamism. The lovely a cappella version of “Love Me Tender” which concludes the album confirms the relative autonomy of the different musical elements: the lack of instrumentation would be impossible in a standard pop frame, but works perfectly well in the experimental jazz setting, and Vesna gives an elegant turn, scat singing included, to the cherished ballad.
The power of a true classic lies in its capacity to withstand strong and even violent interpretations, which, in ‘Comeback Special’ style, re-introduce the familiar as something new. It seems that there are still a few surprises left in the old hits of Graceland. Dear listener, enjoy “With Suspicious Minds,” you hold in your hands an original.Aaron Schuster