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:

Little Boots – Hands

This might seem a bit “young” for my usual tastes, but Little Boots is an interesting act with a sound that makes it clear that someone – whether it’s the artist or her producer(s) – has a fixation on an ’80s-style sound that I used to know as “new wave.” (These days I think they call it electropop; I missed the memo when this change happened.) This sound has won Little Boots a consistent showing in the charts in the UK and Europe over the past several months, and it’s a sound that’s usually backed up by some pretty catchy songwriting.

And how much credibility does Little Boots have with the (formerly) new wave crowd? Enough that her debut album features a duet with Human League frontman Philip Oakey – if that’s not an old-school new wave stamp of approval, then I’m not sure there is one. It’s also one of the highlights of the entire album, but not the only one by far. The dance-ready single “Remedy” is slightly more modern, but still puts wavering, wobbly ’80s analog-style synths front and center in the mix. “Stuck On Repeat” also smacks of a strong ’80s new wave influence, with a pulsating, repeating synth behind the entire song. It’s meant to be dance music, of course, but it stands up quite well musically.

3 out of 4“Symmetry” and “Stuck On Repeat” are just two of the standouts; others include “Earthquake”, “Click” and “Hearts Collide”. The first single, “New In Town”, doesn’t strike me as having the staying power of some of the above, but it was popular enough in the UK. At any rate, enough of Hands is strong enough that Little Boots is an act that merits watching in the future.

Order this CD

  1. New In Town (3:19)
  2. Earthquake (4:04)
  3. Stuck On Repeat (3:21)
  4. Click (3:16)
  5. Remedy (3:19)
  6. Meddle (3:16)
  7. Ghost (3:02)
  8. Mathematics (3:25)
  9. Symmetry (4:30)
  10. Discuss it!Tune Into My Heart (3:41)
  11. Hearts Collide (3:45)
  12. No Brakes (4:01)

Released by: Atlantic
Release date: 2009
Total running time: 42:59

Read More

Who’s Serious: The Symphonic Music of the Who

Who's Serious: The Symphonic Music of the Who It’s been a concept as old as the music industry itself. Whenever you need to need to squeeze out a few more dollars from a songwriter’s catalog of hits, simply hire an in-house orchestra to record those same songs in a more “classical” setting. It started with 101 Strings in 1957, and continues to this day with the “String Tribute To…” albums that seem to get churned out more and more each week. But what if the orchestra that offers the tribute is worthy of tribute themselves?

Who’s Serious is one item from a line of rock-meets-symphony albums by the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Jimi Hendrix, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, etc.), with The Who being the band toasted. But just one listen and you can tell that this is a cut above your average “tribute” album. The album kicks off with “Overture”, a medley of Who hits performed by Roger Daltrey’s touring band. The next track starts the album off proper, with “I Can See For Miles” being performed by the Orchestra. They continue with a string (sorry, bad pun) of The Who’s songs until the last track, “Listening To You,” is again recorded by Roger Daltrey’s band.

One thing I noticed while listening to the album: the arrangements are top-notch. The melody, in particular, captures Roger Daltrey’s inflections perfectly (for example, the “hiccup” on “Who Are You”). But there are still some qualms present. First, only a handful of The Who’s most well-known songs were chosen, meaning that this probably won’t appeal to casual Who fans. Who purists, on the other hand, may also find fault with the fact that the Orchestra may have taken liberties with the arrangements (“Baba O’Riley”, for instance, repeats the first verse and chorus before going into the second verse). Thirdly, even though Roger Daltrey’s touring band performs on the bookends of the album, there is little mention of them in the liner notes besides listing each member of “The Band”. Maybe it’s just because I obessively catalog my music collection, but I would have prefered a little more than that to go on. And lastly, despite all the good intentions and professionalism Rating - 3 out of 4brought to this project, one gets the feeling that the only reason this came about was to, yes, line someone’s coffers.

It probably goes without saying that if you’re new to The Who, then you should pick up the original recordings first. But for Who fans looking for a new twist on some old favorites, this may well be the album for you.

Order this CD

  1. Overture(6:18)
  2. I Can See For Miles(3:21)
  3. Pinball Wizard / See Me, Feel Me(5:13)
  4. My Generation(5:51)
  5. Dr. Jimmy(12:30)
  6. Baba O’Riley(5:34)
  7. 5:15(7:44)
  8. Love Reign O’er Me(6:41)
  9. Who Are You(4:37)
  10. Listening To You (from We’re Not Going To Take It)(4:48)

Released by: BMG
Release date: 1998
Total running time: 63:03

L.E.O. – Alpacas Orgling

LEO - Alpacas OrglingThe idea behind the L.E.O. sessions were simple – indie pop artist Bleu Macauley and friends, acquaintances and colleagues from across North America would combine their talents, often by long distance, to create a tribute to the style, if not necessarily specific songs, of Jeff Lynne and ELO. Aside from Blue, just a few of the artists involved include Andy Sturmer (formerly of Jellyfish), the Hanson brothers (yes, those Hanson brothers), and quite a few others who have cut their teeth on the indie-label power pop circuit. And right from the first full song, it’s clear that the L.E.O. collective is settling for nothing less than an homage to ELO’s glory years – the period stretching from Face The Music through Out Of The Blue.

If that’s the sound you’re looking for, it’s nicely approximated in such tracks as “Distracted,” “Sukaz Are Born Every Minute,” and “Goodbye Innocence.” Fans of ELO’s funkier, less lush numbers will like “Make Me” and espeically “Ya Had Me Goin'”, which kicks off with an intro strongly reminiscent of “Evil Woman.” Even Lynne’s post-ELO, retro-rockabilly solo style is represented in one of the better songs, “Private Line.” Most of the songs here are winners, though there’s a “bonus track” (not quite 2 minutes of music at the end of a mostly empty, half-hour-long track) that’s basically an abbreviated version of “Don’t Bring Me Down” that smacks more of being a spoof than an homage. The album’s just a little bit short (for the total running time below, I deleted the long empty 4 out of 4stretch of the bonus track so you can tell how much actual music there is), but there’s a great deal of promise here – enough to make me wonder if a follow-up is planned. This “group” – term loosely used – has successfully captured a style that’s not explored much these days, though the question is really whether or not enough people will take them up on the offer to make it worth the artists’ or the labels’ time. If you ever enjoyed the ELO sound, this album is definitely worth yours.

Order this CD in the Store

  1. Overture (0:33)
  2. Goodbye Innocence (3:51)
  3. Ya Had Me Goin’ (3:10)
  4. Distracted (4:18)
  5. Make Me (3:00)
  6. The Ol’ College Try (3:43)
  7. Nothin’ Will Ever Change (4:12)
  8. Don’t Let It Go (3:24)
  9. Private Line (3:12)
  10. Sukaz Are Born Every Minute (4:18)
  11. Don’t Bring Me Down (1:55)

Released by: Cheap Lullaby Records
Release date: 2006
Total running time: 35:36

Lenny & Squiggy present Lenny and the Squigtones

Lenny & Squiggy present Lenny and the SquigtonesBefore A Mighty Wind, before This Is Spinal Tap, there was Lenny and the Squigtones.

Michael McKean and David Lander first created the characters of Lenny & Squiggy (then known as Lenny & Ant’ny) while members of the comedy troupe The Credibility Gap. When they were hired as writers for the Happy Days spin-off Laverne & Shirley (along with fellow Gap member Harry Shearer) they lobbied for their creations to be included as recurring characters.

After the show had gained success, an album was released, Laverne & Shirley Sing, featuring Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams performing in character. It sold well enough to justify a follow-up featuring the show’s other duo. On the show Lenny and Squiggy had often been shown performing with their band Lenny and the Squigtones, so an album by the erstwhile greasers actually made more sense than one by two bottling plant employees. Lenny & Squiggy present Lenny and the Squigtones is presented in the form of a concert and was, in fact, recorded live at the Roxy in Los Angeles. McKean and Lander stay in character throughout. The only thing that breaks the fourth wall is a joke that revolves around the “Happy Days gang” and a musical version of “In Cold Blood”.

The comedy shows an edge to the characters that is, no doubt, more in line with the original Credibility Gap version than the tamer presentation seen on Laverne & Shirley. The between-song sketches are perfectly tailored to the actors and they never fail to milk the most out of the jokes.

The music is also top-notch, expertly capturing an authentic 1950’s feel. Like the music in This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind, the songs never make fun of the style, but have fun with it. And in an interesting connection to Spinal Tap (the one that lands this in the Tap canon), Christopher Guest plays guitar for the band and is credited in the liner notes as Nigel Tufnel. His guitar work is actually noticeable, most clearly on “Foreign Legion Of Love”, which bears distinct similarities to Spinal Tap’s “Stonehenge” and “Clam Caravan”.

4 out of 4Run, don’t walk, to your favorite record store to get Lenny & Squiggy present Lenny and the Squigtones. Then walk quietly home when you realize it’s long out of print, extremely difficult to find and darn expensive if you do. But by whatever means you employ, you must find this album. No fan of the Spinal Tap genre of recordings should be without it.

Order this CD

  1. Vamp On* (:50)
  2. Night After Night (2:30)
  3. Creature Without A Head (3:49)
  4. King Of The Cars (2:11)
  5. Squiggy’s Wedding Day (5:55)
  6. Love Is A Terrible Thing (2:52)
  7. Babyland* (For Eva Squigman) (3:16)
  8. (If Only I Had Listened To) Mama (2:10)
  9. So’s Your Old Testament* (1:29)
  10. Sister-In-Law (3:05)
  11. Honor Farm* (2:08)
  12. Starcrossed (2:59)
  13. Only Women Cry* (1:30)
  14. Foreign Legion of Love (4:20)
  15. Vamp Off* (:36)
    note: tracks with a (*) are spoken word tracks

Released by: Casablanca
Release date: 1979
Total running time: 39:40

Levinhurst – Perfect Life

Levinhurst - Perfect LifeAn interestingly retro effort, Perfect Life is a bit of a manifesto for Levinhurst: it aims to bring some ’80s new wave feel back into the present with the help of some modern technology. And Levinhurst does carry the necessary pedigree to accomplish this; leading the trio is Lol Tolhurst, founding member of The Cure, with Cindy Levinson handling vocals and Dayton Borders providing some synth and sequencer wizardry.

If I have a gripe with Levinhurst’s debut effort, it lies more with the track sequencing than anything. Kicking off with a brief, atmospheric instrumental, the album really doesn’t properly start until the percolating intro of “Let’s Go” hits, and while it’s a decent song, it’s very repetitive lyrically, and even those lyrics are pretty lightweight compared to many of the other songs; thematically, I understand why “Let’s Go” is where it is, as an invitation to the rest of the album, but it’s one of the album’s weaker songs, so it really undermines that point. “Sorrow” hits next, and it’s immediately clear when I hear it that this should’ve been the lead track (and the lead single, but I’ll return to that point later). It sweeps into a dark, electronic rhythm worthy of early Eurythmics or Depeche Mode, with Levinson providing some of the best vocals on the whole disc. This song is actually what tipped me off to Levinhurst in the first place (when I heard it on Free Zone on WICR, Indianapolis – just a wee plug there).

The excellent vocals and interesting approach to instrumentation carries over into “Sadman”, another excellent track, and “Lost” is a delightful track that has, compositionally speaking, what I’d describe as musical red herrings – the chord and melodic progressions sometimes lead you to places where you would’ve had no reasonable expectation of the song going. Maybe that’s an example of writing stuff cleverly that only other songwriters would pick up on, or maybe it’s an example of writing in that distinctive let’s-break-the-rules-of-how-this-is-done style of the ’80s, but it’s a neat track all the same. A brief instrumental, “Insomniac”, follows, and it smacks just a little bit of early Depeche Mode, and after that comes the perky, swirling, begs-to-be-danced-to “Despair” – seems like a bit of a contradiction, doesn’t it?

The lead single for Perfect Life is “Hope”, and “Hope” is a decent song, but it’s somehow not as catchy as “Sorrow” or even “Let’s Go”; all I can figure is that the band (or the label) wanted something with an upbeat mood coming out of the starting gate. If they wanted something that sounded “up,” even the last song, “More / Mad”, would’ve fit the bill. After checking the credits in the CD booklet, I wonder if I wasn’t picking up on something else: “Hope” alone was recorded in a different studio and put together by a different producer. Something about it is a little “noisier” than some of the other tracks, with heavy distortion 3 out of 4introduced on some of the synth parts, and it just doesn’t seem entirely representative of the sound established on the rest of the album.

Perfect Life may not be a perfect album, but it does show great promise for Levinhurst. Hopefully they’ll get a chance to follow up on it.

Order this CD

  1. Vinti (1:13)
  2. Let’s Go (3:40)
  3. Sorrow (3:30)
  4. Sadman (5:41)
  5. Lost (4:14)
  6. Insomniac (1:33)
  7. Despair (3:48)
  8. Hope (3:03)
  9. Behind Me (4:09)
  10. Perfect Life (1:31)
  11. More / Mad (7:06)

Released by: Full Contact
Release date: 2004
Total running time: 39:30