Jeff Lynne’s ELO – Alone In The Universe

Alone In The Universe15 years after his last album that took 15 years to arrive, Jeff Lynne is back, once again operating under the ELO banner, with an album that straddles his own tendencies toward classic rock and the trademark sound that his fans all but demand anytime he surfaces.

It’s not as if he’s been completely dormant during this time: an album of re-recorded-all-by-himself ELO covers, some of them fairly close to the sound of the originals, as well as an album of rock covers of classic hits and standards, done in Lynne’s trademark style. Armchair Theatre, his 1990 solo album, was reissued with bonus tracks. He’s also been producing albums for the likes of Joe Walsh and Bryan Adams, so it’s not as if he and his sound have gone completely underground.

But what has been missing is Jeff Lynne, writing new songs and performing and producing them himself. Long Wave and Mr. Blue Sky, nice as they were, were covers albums. Alone In The Universe is what Lynne/ELO fans have really been waiting for: new music from that familiar, laid-back voice. “When I Was A Boy” opens the album with languid nostalgia, perhaps as autobiographical a song as we’re ever likely to hear from Lynne, chronicling his childhood love of music that led to a life of writing and performing. There are hints of strings, all synthesized/sampled, though they’re kept far enough in the background that it doesn’t break the song.

“Love And Rain” picks up the tempo with a guitar groove reminiscent of “Showdown”‘s clavinet, while “Dirty To The Bone” bestows a cheerful sound upon some surprisingly biting (and occasionally silly) lyrics. What follows next is a one-two punch of two of the album’s best numbers, the mesmerizing “When The Night Comes” and the strangely relaxing and uplifting “The Sun Will Shine”. “When The Night Comes” takes some tried-and-true elements, such as a chorus that owes more than a little bit to the chorus of the Traveling Wilburys’ “Not Alone Any More”, and sets them to a beat that’s as close to reggae as Lynne’s ever likely to stray. “The Sun Will Shine” is a gently uplifting song with some of Lynne’s best lyrics in ages, with a soothing synth-and-guitar wash in the background. (In the electronic press kit interview for the album, Lynne says he wrote it to help a friend who was depressed; I can tell you that it does work in cheering up someone in dire straits.) “Ain’t It A Drag” is a delightfully cheery song about karma catching up with someone who’s done you wrong, while “All My Life” is a more plaintive, idealized love song, but a very pretty one.

“I’m Leaving You” sees Lynne going for the full Orbison, which is a gutsy thing to do because, as Bruce Springsteen himself once said, no one can sing like Roy Orbison. Still, this is a better approximation than most could manage. “One Step At A Time”, added at a late stage out of concern that the album didn’t have enough upbeat tracks, is a curious mix of a driving rhythm that wouldn’t have been out of place on Discovery, slathered with languid slide guitar that is simultaneously at odds with that rhythm and yet fits over it nicely. (And, for the first time in many years, it’s an ELO song with more cowbell!)

“Alone In The Universe” brings the album to a close in its intended configuration, Lynne’s ode to – of all things – space probe Voyager 1, outbound from the edge of the solar system, and it turns out to be the most ELO-ish song of the entire album, in both subject matter and presentation. Where Zoom might’ve left some fans thinking that it was an ELO album in name only, this album’s title track demonstrates that ELO is back in more than name only, even if it’s just Jeff Lynne in his studio. The sound of ELO is back as well.

Various deluxe versions of the album somewhat jarringly add anywhere from two to three extra songs after that perfect closure, from the country-rock of “Fault Line” (probably inspired by Lynne’s proximity to San Andreas), “Blue” (an addictively Wilbury-ish number), and the very ’80s-ish “On My Mind” (whose production touches include helicopters flying overhead for some reason).

4 out of 4Assembled as a musical package, Alone In The Universe is almost everything I’ve missed about ELO, tied up with a bow – this is why I still get excited to hear about Jeff Lynne heading into a studio, and why I hope he doesn’t keep taking off 15 years between albums.

Order this CD

  1. When I Was A Boy (3:12)
  2. Love And Rain (3:30)
  3. Dirty To The Bone (3:06)
  4. When The Night Comes (3:22)
  5. The Sun Will Shine On You (3:30)
  6. Ain’t It A Drag (2:36)
  7. All My Life (2:51)
  8. I’m Leaving You (3:08)
  9. One Step At A Time (3:21)
  10. Alone In The Universe (3:55)

    Bonus Tracks

  11. Fault Line (2:07)
  12. Blue (2:36)
  13. On My Mind (3:09)

Released by: Columbia
Release date: November 13, 2015
Total running time: 32:23 (standard edition/LP), 37:06 (deluxe CD/download), 40:23 (Japanese Blu-Spec CD)

Jeff Lynne – Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra

Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light OrchestraClaiming in multiple press releases that he had “never been satisfied” by the quality of the original (career-making) recordings, ex-ELO frontman Jeff Lynne set about re-recording many of the band’s most iconic hits in his home studio, playing and singing everything himself. The result is, at the very least, interesting: it’s fascinating to hear what Lynne thought the essential elements of the original recordings were that needed to be reproduced, and what was non-essential enough to jettison. It’s tempting, going in, to think that everything will be stripped back to almost-acoustic bare bones with drier (i.e. less reverb-drenched) – the Traveling Wilburys Orchestra, in short. But it’s not always that obvious.

The opening volley, “Mr. Blue Sky” itself, is arguably Lynne’s best-known song, and he takes a respectable swipe at replicating it. Jeff Lynne can still sing, and he’s still the master of singing his own backup – nobody does it better. The worst indignity foisted upon “Mr. Blue Sky” is the total omission of the song’s epic extended coda. On one hand, changes in the prevailing winds of radio may make this a good idea for the lead single, and the coda was always a callback to “Big Wheels” (an earlier song in the four-song “Concerto For A Rainy Day” cycle from 1977’s Out Of The Blue, for which “Mr. Blue Sky” was originally written) anyway. But even without knowing about the refrain from “Big Wheels”, it’s come to be an integral part of the song. It’s always been part of the experience to have it there. (And it’s the coda of “Mr. Blue Sky” that was artfully worked into the score of the Doctor Who episode Love & Monsters.) It feels like the song’s been gutted.

“Evil Woman” is nearly indistinguishable from the “stripped down” mix that appeared on the Face The Music remaster (which mixed most of the strings out of the original master recording); the strings here are obviously synthesized. “Strange Magic” is reproduced with almost eerie accuracy, down to the flanged vocals going into each chorus. “Don’t Bring Me Down” sports more significant changes, but they’re not intrusive, and they turn the song from a disco-era looping experiment into a chugging rocker. “Turn To Stone” also rolls with some changes in style that have occurred in the 35 years since its original recording became a hit, and I actually liked some of Lynne’s minor changes to the vocal melody, even if the recording itself isn’t as densely-packed as the original (and the tightly-harmonized a capella bridge toward the end of the song isn’t what it used to be).

“Showdown” is an excellent recreation of ELO’s earliest bona fide hit, and despite the “Jeff Lynne DIY” approach, it’s actually a bit more lush here than it was in 1973, when it was part of the group’s early configuration (grungy overdubbed cellos without session players making the whole thing sound properly posh). But there’s a lyrical misstep that might’ve been averted if Jeff had simply Googled his own lyrics: the original recording’s “’cause I’m really suffering” in the second verse inexplicably becomes nonsensical in the re-recording: “I’m a real submarine.” Part of me thinks it may be a little hint of Lynne’s tongue-in-cheek British humor.

“Telephone Line” isn’t quite as successful in the recreating-the-original department, but it’s pleasant enough as a “cover band” exercise. The synth strings aren’t quite capable of pulling off the violin solo that’s central to “Livin’ Thing”, making it one of the least successful covers. “Do Ya” straddles the fence between the original Move recording and the prettied-up ELO version. The strings are less important to “Do Ya” in the end; Lynne deftly replicates – and subtly improves on – the straight-ahead-rocker guitar work of the original. “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head” nicely recreates the sound of the original, except for the lead vocal line, which is so relaxed that it seems strangely unenthusiastic.

A new version of “10538 Overture” brings the reminiscence to a fitting end, and like “Showdown”, it’s quite a bit more modern than its original incarnation, and relatively stripped down. The original “10538” was the genesis of ELO’s original wall-of-cellos sound, and included such tricks as running some of the vocals through the Leslie speaker normally used on a Hammond organ. But the sound can never be the same: digital recording means you have infinite tracks for the cellos, they’re always going to sound cleaner because less “track bouncing” had to be done, and applying that effect to the vocals is a matter of point-and-click these days. The original recording earned an A+ for solid engineering effort even if you didn’t dig the tune itself. Still, it’s nice to hear it clean and crisp like this.

Closing the album out is “Point Of No Return” – a brand new song done by Lynne in a style borrowing from quite a few eras of ELO past. Musically, it’s very nice, though the lyrics seem a bit uninspired – but in the end, this is what I’m actually wanting from the novel and exciting idea of Jeff Lynne being back in the studio.

Over a decade ago, the now defunct (and sorely-missed) Not Lame label gathered some of non-mainstream power pop’s brightest rising stars to record their own homages to Lynne’s entire career; everything was fair game, from Idle Race to The Move to Armchair Theatre, and if you didn’t like the result, it was okay because the next song was by someone else. Some of the reinterpretations were radical (Evil Woman edged into hip-hop R&B territory and survived the transition), and that was okay. Truth be told, I 3 out of 4think I had more of a stomach for new artists reinventing these beloved songs than I do for Jeff Lynne himself to redo them as the sole performer of record. A couple of the new recordings of old favorites simply inspire me to turn them off halfway through and go back to listen to the originals with renewed appreciation.

Order this CD

  1. Mr. Blue Sky (3:44)
  2. Evil Woman (4:30)
  3. Strange Magic (3:53)
  4. Don’t Bring Me Down (4:01)
  5. Turn To Stone (3:45)
  6. Showdown (4:15)
  7. Telephone Line (4:29)
  8. Livin’ Thing (3:42)
  9. Do Ya (3:56)
  10. Can’t Get It Out Of My Head (4:34)
  11. 10538 Overture 40th Anniversary Edition (4:43)
  12. The Point Of No Return (3:14)

Released by: Frontiers Records
Release date: October 9, 2012
Total running time:

Electric Light Orchestra – Balance Of Power (remaster)

ELO - Balance Of PowerReleased in tandem with the 30th anniversary edition of Out Of The Blue is, oddly, the last album released by anything resembling ELO’s original lineup as a band. In the years after Secret Messages, bassist Kelly Groucutt vanished from the lineup, leaving a three-piece outfit of Bev Bevan, Richard Tandy and Jeff Lynne, looking in this album’s photography like three guys angling for a chance to be extras in the background of a Miami Vice scene. With Lynne tired of touring, and Bevan tiring of Lynne’s increasingly elaborate studio sessions, this was the end of the road for ELO as a group. There’s a certain weariness to the songs that, while it doesn’t prevent them from being decent music, lets one read between the lines a bit. It was all over.

For this remastered edition of the now 21-year-old album, we’re treated to more honest-to-God outtakes recorded at the same time as the rest of the album’s tracks than any other ELO remaster since the group’s 1972 album. A strikingly different version of “Heaven Only Knows” is presented here, having become the stuff of legend, played only at pre-concert fan club gatherings and other such functions, as well as vintage 1986 B-sides “Destination Unknown”, “A Matter Of Fact” and “Caught In A Trap”. Some of these have been heard before, on the 1990 box set Afterglow (proof that, even in “retirement,” ELO wasn’t out of circulation for long). The real gem of this CD’s bonus tracks is “In For The Kill” – it’s essentially “Caught In A Trap” in a slightly different form, with almost identical music with completely different and (for Jeff Lynne) atypically almost-political lyrics, but the best part is Lynne’s exploration of almost Crosby, Stills & Nash-inspired harmonies. It’s a crying shame this got left off the original album (especially an album that arrived just a year before the movie Wall Street) because in retrospect, it would’ve been the best, most energetic follow-up single to “Calling America”. This song alone is just about worth the price of the album.

There were still other rarities from this era that could’ve filled out the CD to its full capacity – there also exists a lyric variation for “Matter Of Fact” – but alas, that opportunity was missed and the CD only runs to about an hour.

The album itself is still quite good, better than most critics would have you believe, with tunes like “Calling America” and “Is It Alright” living up to ELO’s best standards, although produced with much more modern technology. In a way, though, the 80s instrumentation and style is probably what hurts Balance Of Power the most – the album is robbed of the relative timelessness of, say, A New World Record, and some songs just become casualties of the 80s. With some of ELO’s best (and better known) material, when Lynne was able to overcome his fixation on a four-to-the-flour disco beat and Chic-style guitar riffs, the songs withstand the test of time better; one listen can pretty much nail this album down to the late ’80s. Not that that’s a bad thing.

Rating: 4 out of 4The only truly sad part about it is that this represents the end of the remastered ELO albums, and possibly the mining of that band’s vaults as well. The liner notes booklet talks about Lynne’s revival of ELO for 2001’s Zoom in the past tense, as if that marks the end of the band’s legacy. One wonders if we aren’t being sent a bit of a secret message there.

    Order this CD in the Store

  1. Heaven Only Knows (2:56)
  2. So Serious (2:43)
  3. Getting To The Point (4:30)
  4. Secret Lives (3:32)
  5. Is It Alright (3:27)
  6. Sorrow About To Fall (4:04)
  7. Without Someone (3:51)
  8. Calling America (3:30)
  9. Endless Lies (3:00)
  10. Send It (3:10)
  11. Opening (0:24)
  12. Heaven Only Knows (alternate version) (2:34)
  13. In For The Kill (3:16)
  14. Secret Lives (alternate take) (3:26)
  15. Sorrow About To Fall (alternate mix) (3:50)
  16. Caught In A Trap (3:47)
  17. Destination Unknown (4:10)

Released by: Epic / Legacy
Release date: 2007 (originally released in 1986)
Total running time: 56:10