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All Things Elvis: Start the new year right with new Elvis goodies

What's new in the wonderful world of Elvis? Get the scoop on new album projects, a book and a brand-new bubbly from Elvis expert Gillian Gaar.

In the interest of research, I kick-started my holidays by sampling the latest in Elvis beverages, All Shook Up California Champagne, vinted and bottled by Graceland Cellars in Woodbridge, Calif. Though categorized as a “brut,” it’s actually very sweet, closer to Asti Spumante than a sparkling wine. It’s got a nice label too — important if you’re going to display the bottle on your shelf — black with gold lettering and a silhouette of Elvis in a pose from “Jailhouse Rock.”

And though the holidays will be past by the time you read this, it’s never too early to start planning for next year. So it’s appropriate to get in a plug for Christmas Duets (RCA Nashville/Sony BMG), which fell between deadline cracks. This release has Elvis singing with various female vocalists, such as Wynonna Judd, Gretchen Wilson and Olivia Newton-John, to mention a few. I personally prefer my Elvis solo, but as his Christmas songs already have been reissued in a variety of interesting packages (my favorite is the 1994 edition that came with a pop-up replica of Graceland), it was a good way to introduce the music to a new audience, and the packaging was nice. The songs also featured new instrumentation and vocal contributions from folks who worked with Elvis when he was still with us — The Jordanaires and Millie Kirkham.

Two great Follow That Dream releases are now available. Nevada Nights presents two shows from Elvis’ summer 1974 season in Las Vegas. The shows present an interesting contrast. The opening night show, Aug. 19, 1974, had Elvis introducing a number of changes. Gone was the “Also Sprach Zarathustra” opening that had been in place for the last two years (more commonly recognized as the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey”); instead, the set begins with “Big Boss Man” and goes on to include a number of unexpected songs, such as “Down in the Alley,” “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues,” “My Baby Left Me” and no greatest hits medley. But though the show got a good review (The Hollywood Reporter called it Elvis’ best in three years), on the next evening the program reverted to type, with “Zarathustra” back (segueing as usual into “See See Rider”), as was the greatest-hits medley. The second show offered here, Aug. 21, 1974, features those along with some other interesting selections, “Hawaiian Wedding Song” (from Elvis’ biggest film, “Blue Hawaii”) and the recitation “Softly As I Leave You,” one of Elvis’ favorite numbers.

The second FTD release is an expanded edition of Elvis Country, originally released in 1971, and Elvis’ last Top 20 studio album in his lifetime (it peaked at #12); the accompanying single “I Really Don’t Want to Know” reached #21. The album was recorded in June 1970, about a year and a half after Elvis’ last studio session, the landmark sessions at American Recordings in Memphis, Tenn. Whereas the Memphis sessions produced especially soulful material, the June ’70 sessions had an unmistakable countrified flavor, hence the album’s title (tracks from the sessions also appeared on the albums Love Letters From Elvis, Elvis Now and even the ostensible live soundtrack album, Elvis: That’s The Way It Is).

As usual with the expanded releases, Elvis Country pulls together rarities that have appeared on other collections, along with a good percentage of previously unreleased material, in this case including early takes of “Snowbird” and “Where Did They Go, Lord,” and several previously unreleased takes of “Tomorrow Never Comes.”

What I find especially enjoyable are the undubbed masters of songs like “Make The