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:

Ben Folds Five – The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind

Ben Folds Five - The Sound Of The Life Of The MindBack when Ben Folds embarked on his solo career, I distinctly remember listening to some of the songs and thinking that the difference in style wasn’t enough to justify dissolving the band; The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner was already a significant departure from the strictly-piano-and-drums-and-fuzz-bass sound that Ben Folds Five started out with, so where was the dividing line where this album was still Ben Folds Five, but the next album’s material was no longer suitable? (As it turned out, the dividing line was actually the distance from South Carolina to Australia – Folds moved down under to get married.)

With Folds now back in the United States, it was only a matter of time before the most obvious idea in the world, namely getting the band back together, occurred to Folds instead of just to the fans. And while Sony would probably have been more than happy for the group to get back into the studio, Folds opted to crowd-fund the recording sessions, with incentives such as downloads for those who helped foot the bill for the band’s reunion. The result is The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind, an album that’s better than I had dared hope. The opening track, “Erase Me”, is enough to make you think that Ben Folds Five was never away.

Once past the lead track, however, we finally get the promise of a post-Reinhold Messner Ben Folds Five, and it confirms my feeling, from the early 21st century, that there was no need to break up the band in the first place. Songs like “Sky High”and “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later” split the difference between Folds’ more orchestrated solo work and the Ben Folds Five sound, though the balance tips toward one extreme or the other elsewhere: “On Being Frank” is a lush ballad about a hanger-on in Frank Sinatra’s entourage suddenly being cut loose, and sounds much more like Folds’ solo work. The opposite end of the scale, and the most Ben Folds Five-like tune on the album, is also the catchiest: “Draw A Crowd” has a punchy melody, though the lyrics of the chorus (“if you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall”) will sadly cheat it out of any kind of radio airplay, which it richly deserves – the tune is just an insanely catchy earworm.

The lead single, instead, is “Do It Anyway”, a half-sung, half-spoken ode to reckless youthful abandon and poor decision-making. (Hell, I feel like I’m 25 years old again just listening to it.) The last three songs on the album are less frantic and more contemplative, as is often the case as Folds closes out an album (with or without the rest of his band).

The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind is a rare reunion album. It’s been over 15 years since I was introduced to Ben Folds Five, back when a friend dropped by my place to cheer me up while I was 4 out of 4recovering from a fairly rough surgery experience and played Whatever And Ever, Amen for me, and rather than sounding like a pale echo of its original sound, Ben Folds Five’s latest has the same irresistible appeal as the group did the first time I heard them, even though the group’s sound has evolved. Fans will probably latch onto it instantly, and after all this time off the map, Ben Folds Five might just find a few new fans too.

Order this CD

  1. Erase Me (5:15)
  2. Michael Praytor, Five Years Later (4:32)
  3. Sky High (4:42)
  4. The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind (4:13)
  5. On Being Frank (4:34)
  6. Draw A Crowd (4:14)
  7. Do It Anyway (4:23)
  8. Hold That Thought (4:14)
  9. Away When You Were Here (3:31)
  10. Thank You For Breaking My Heart (4:50)

Released by: Sony
Release date: September 18, 2012
Total running time: 44:28

Producers – Made In Basing Street

Made In Basing StreetThey may not be the Traveling Wilburys, but this group – consisting of veteran producers and session musicians developing a few jams into full-blown songs – may have turned out the best album of 2012 while no one was watching.

With Lol Creme (10cc) and Trevor Horn (Yes, Art of Noise, The Buggles) as full-time members, it’s a given that this group’s original numbers come from guys who know how to write a song or two. What’s surprising is just how cohesive the whole thing is – Made In Basing Street bolts from one strong, memorable number to another without pausing for breath, or, as the old saying goes, “all killer, no filler.” None of the songs sound like they were album tracks farted out to fill space.

And it’s hard to even pick a favorite. “You And I” recalls the early ’80s, when synths were a novel (and perhaps occasionally overused) new addition to the instrumental palette, while such songs as “Waiting For The Right Time”, “Watching You Out There” and “Every Single Night In Jamaica” recall all that was good about ’70s rock anthems. Stripped-down numbers like “Stay Elaine” and “Barking Up The Right Tree” are no less memorable. Needless to say, each song is impeccably arranged and crafted, since the group’s members have built their entire careers on pairing the right song with the right production.

4 out of 4With all of the members’ careers still chugging along nicely, I’m under no illusion that we’ll be getting a follow-up to Made In Basing Street anytime soon, and in any case, these classic rock Justice Leagues are often formed and dissolved at the whim of their members. But I sincerely hope there will be a follow-up at some point, simply because the debut album was so good. Half a year later, I’m still playing this one a lot.

Order this CD

    Disc One

  1. Freeway (5:14)
  2. Waiting For The Right Time (4:15)
  3. Your Life (6:26)
  4. Man On The Moon (4:02)
  5. Every Single Night In Jamaica (5:16)
  6. Stay Elaine (3:44)
  7. Barking Up The Right Tree (3:21)
  8. Garden of Flowers (4:14)
  9. Watching You Out There (5:35)
  10. You & I (5:47)
    Disc Two (Deluxe Edition only)

  1. Your Life (extended) (7:40)
  2. Garden Of Flowers (alternative) (5:53)
  3. Seven (3:50)
  4. There’s Only So Much You Can Do (3:29)
  5. Freeway (extended) (12:06)

Released by: The LAST Label
Release date: June 25, 2012
Total running time: 48:32 (single disc) / 33:13 (deluxe edition bonus disc)

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Another Earth – music by Fall On Your Sword

It’s an interesting notion, pairing a somewhat morose, navel-gazing (but still compelling) movie with a soundtrack that veers between percolating electronica and moody piano and cello, but the resulting soundtrack is an interesting new entry in the debate about electronica-as-film-score (a conversation that’s been unavoidable since Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross won an Oscar with their music from The Social Network.

The main themes of the movie are laid out in two punchy pieces of electronic music, “The First Time I Saw Jupiter” and “Rhoda’s Theme”. The former isn’t a piece of music with any great variety – it stays mostly within a single chord – but it does have an insistent, almost Morse-Code-like rhythm. “Rhoda’s Theme” is more interesting musically, by far, with a repeating but long-lined tune that evolves additional layers and counterpoints, eventually including a wordless female vocal and cello. A new sound emerges in “The End Of The World”, but as it mostly consists of a wall of noise and industrial percussion, it’s difficult to classify it as a theme.

Tracks like “The House Theme” and “Naked On The Ice” are no less synthesized than the tracks mentioned above, but they achieve a more “organic” feel simply by leaving the drum machine off. “The Specialist: Am I Alone?” and “Making Contact” lean more heavily in the electronic direction, without becoming dance tracks like “Rhoda’s Theme.” “I Am Over There” and “Purdeep’s Theme” employ percussion without quite becoming rave-worthy.

Fall On Your Sword turns in a decent score, but somehow it never 3 out of 4quite fits the movie like a glove. The subtler cues are the most at home within the movie, and the more “active” music, while it’s a better stand-alone listening experience, never quite fits as well. It may be best to hear the soundtrack before the movie, and soak up the music independent of the imagery, rather than the other way around.

Order this CD

  1. The First Time I Saw Jupiter (2:54)
  2. Bob The Robot (1:12)
  3. The Specialist: Am I Alone (4:52)
  4. Naked On The Ice (1:46)
  5. Rhoda’s Theme (5:54)
  6. The House Theme (1:22)
  7. The End Of The World (1:54)
  8. Rhoda’s Application (1:37)
  9. Making Contact (1:15)
  10. I Am Over There (4:14)
  11. Purdeep’s Theme (4:22)
  12. The Cosmonaut (2:01)
  13. The Specialist: Look At Ourselves (3:59)
  14. Sonatina In D Minor by Phaedon Papadopoulos (1:18)
  15. Rhoda’s Theme / Running To John (3:50)
  16. Forgive (2:39)
  17. Love Theme (1:58)
  18. The Other You (1:43)
  19. The First Time I Saw Jupiter / End Titles (5:21)

Released by: Milan Records
Release date: 2011
Total running time: 54:11

fun. – Some Nights

fun. - Some Nightsfun.’s debut album was one of those musical first-stretches-out-of-the-starting-gate that made one wonder how the group would top that in the second leg of the race. It turns out they’re doing it quite nicely, even though there are a few stylistic quirks to Some Nights that left me feeling a little bit old. The rock-solid songwriting is more evocative of Queen than ever, and that alone makes fun. worth following.

When I reviewed the group’s first album, I found myself wondering if their chosen band name might be a liability. Perhaps I was worrying too much – in the months leading up to the release of Some Nights, fun. managed to step up its promotional game considerably. The song “We Are Young” was highlighted on Glee months in advance of the album, and it’s also been picked up for a major national advertising campaign as well. This sort of thing shouldn’t be considered “selling out” – if anything, in the download age, strategic licensing of one’s music is bread and butter, and I don’t hold it against anybody trying to get a song placed in an ad campaign. These alliances have served as a showcase of fun.’s music, giving the band the kind of exposure that, in these dying days of radio, no amount of payola can buy.

And it’s really good music. That’s already been mentioned, hasn’t it? It’s really good music. The title track is split across an extended intro and the main song itself; if for no other reason than the prominent F-bomb, the intro will likely be skipped in nearly every broadcast venue. (It’s rather stunning that there’s a video for it, and an uncensored one at that.) “Some Nights” is the first indication that the album of the same name is an entire album of anthems – nearly every song is a celebration of its subject matter, whether it’s youth and the excesses that go with it (“Some Nights” and the perfectly-pitched ’50s rock pastiche “We Are Young”), and resilience in the face of opposition (“Carry On”, “It Gets Better”). With the exception of the world-weary but beautiful “Carry On” (my early favorite out of the entire album) and “Why Am I The One”, Some Nights is upbeat and fun.

If I have a bone to pick with Some Nights, it’s the utterly bizarre use of auto-tune on several songs. I know it’s standard-issue in any studio at this point, but I can’t think of a band that needs it less. After Aim & Ignite, lead singer Nate Ruess was almost inevitably compared to Freddie Mercury of Queen, and given the very operatic, Queen-like “Some Nights Intro”, it would seem that he’s cool with that comparison (and really, what a voice to be compared to!). If there’s a voice in rock music today that needs auto-tune less than Nate Ruess, please point me that way because that person’s probably singing some good stuff too. It’s used here as a style choice, just another tool in the studio arsenal, but I can’t help but feel that it mars the proceedings when it rears its head. Nate Ruess does not need auto-tune. He may just be the best voice in rock today, and I’ll bet he could’ve hit every note without the studio trickery – it cheapens that voice 4 out of 4to turn him into a singing robot.

Give or take a couple of production choices that make it unwisely easy to downplay what an amazing voice fun.’s frontman has, Some Nights is definitely worthy of the hype and build-up that it got. You should definitely keep your eyes and ears on fun.

Order this CD

  1. Some Nights Intro (2:17)
  2. Some Nights (4:37)
  3. We Are Young featuring Janelle Monáe (4:10)
  4. Carry On (4:38)
  5. It Gets Better (3:36)
  6. Why Am I The One (4:46)
  7. All Alone (3:03)
  8. All Alright (3:57)
  9. One Foot (3:31)
  10. Stars (6:53)
  11. Out On The Town (4:21)

Released by: Fueled By Ramen
Release date: 2012
Total running time: 45:49

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Liam Finn – FOMO

FOMOThe eagerly awaited second effort from Liam Finn was a major event for indie music in 2011; indeed, it was easier to find his new album than it was to track down the latest efforts from his famous father or uncle. I’ll Be Lightning had set the bar incredibly high, with across-the-board great songwriting, crisp (if occasionally slightly lo-fi) production, and mind-boggling performances from Finn, who played and sang every note on the album. How could he surpass that opening act?

With FOMO, it would seem that he wasn’t trying to surpass it, but to steer clear of it. As universally lauded as Lightning was, it was a pretty good bet that the follow-up wouldn’t live up to everyone’s expectations. FOMO‘s lead single, “The Struggle”, was a sonic mess compared to Lightning‘s panoramic production and gorgeous harmonies – swampy, even more lo-fi, and more suited to fans of shouty punk rock than to fans of the previous album. It was evolved from the loop-based style that Finn had adopted during endless one-man-band touring for Lightning, but was a little off-putting if you’d grown accustomed to I’ll Be Lightning‘s house style.

Fortunately, it’s also an oddball song on FOMO, which opens with four songs as good as anything on Finn’s debut album. “Neurotic World” picks up where the Lightning‘s relaxing, harmony-based pop songs left off, while “Don’t Even Know Your Name” is a jumpier rock song with improbable ascending vocals in the chorus. The one-two punch of “Roll Of The Eye” and “Cold Feet” is the strongest pair of songs on FOMO, and it’s no accident that the latter was quickly rolled out as the album’s second single with an amusing video to match. It’s with these two songs that one of Liam Finn’s major influences can be found: while his father may be aspiring to be the 21st century’s answer to Paul McCartney, Liam is exploring Lennon territory and doing so boldly. If you’ve been missing the John Lennon sound, just as melodic as McCartney but occasionally bolder and more unpredictable, you need to be following Liam Finn’s musical exploits. “Cold Feet” was one of the catchiest songs I heard in 2011.

“Real Late” has a faux-Eastern flavor to it, but loses a lot of the energy built up in the first four songs. This is followed by “The Struggle” and “Little Words”, another low-key number with some great harmonies. “Reckless” gets things back on track with a jumpy punk-pop feel that – as much as I don’t want to make the obvious comparisons – would’ve fit right into the early ’80s Split Enz setlist. “Chase The Seasons” is a pleasant, beautifully-harmonized shuffle, while “Jump Your Bones” closes things out with a bit of a free-form jam – the closest any other songs on the album gets to “The Struggle”.

4 out of 4Most of the album is a real joy, even in its quieter moments. Liam Finn continues to show expert songwriting and performance chops, and some impressive production skill to boot – bits of “Cold Feet” are almost Lindsey Buckingham-esque (perhaps even moreso than anything Buckingham himself has turned out in recent years), and that’s not a bad thing.

Order this CD

  1. Neurotic World (3:00)
  2. Don’t Even Know Your Name (4:09)
  3. Roll Of The Eye (4:40)
  4. Cold Feet (4:16)
  5. Real Late (3:11)
  6. The Struggle (2:52)
  7. Little Words (2:37)
  8. Reckless (2:36)
  9. Chase The Seasons (3:01)
  10. Jump Your Bones (5:37)

Released by: Yep Roc
Release date: 2011
Total running time: 35:59

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Gotye – Making Mirrors

Gotye - Making MirrorsRapidly gaining notice outside of his native Australia, Gotye is yet another one of these artists who plays and sings nearly everything himself, and produces his own material as well. Originally starting out with a heavy reliance on sampling, Gotye has managed to emerge as an musician with originality and a style not unlike something I’ve been missing for a while: it certainly doesn’t hurt that, when the man lets rip vocally, he sounds like Peter Gabriel at the height of his powers, or late-Police-era/Dream Of The Blue Turtles-era Sting. Put that voice together with a quirky approach to instrumentation and you’ve got a pretty potent brew that’s hit the top of the charts in Australia and New Zealand, and might well do some damage elsewhere in the world.

The single that brought Gotye to everyone’s notice (mine included) was “Somebody That I Used To Know”, a song that’s uncompromisingly Gabriel-esque in its execution (and the striking-but-not-flashy video’s not a million miles away from the groundbreaking stuff that a younger Pete used to do, either). Featuring a guest vocal from New Zealand jazz singer Kimbra, it’s a handy jumping-on point for those unfamiliar with Gotye. The rest of the album isn’t necessarily just like it, but with songs that walk deftly between such well-defined genres as techno and reggae, we shouldn’t be expecting any two Gotye songs to be alike: this guy clearly loves to kick down the barriers that common sense and received wisdom tell us should exist between these styles of music, and the result is startlingly original cutting-edge rock.

Much of the album is sunnier than the somewhat angsty “Somebody That I Used To Know”, but it’s no less listenable. “State Of The Art” is as close as Making Mirrors gets to revisiting “Somebody”‘s dark feel, relying on samples, spoken word, and instrumentation that doesn’t normally get paired together. It’s a stranger specimen than “Somebody”, but it’s still listenable and re-listenable. The echoing “Smoke And Mirrors” and the low-key, atmospheric “Giving Me A Chance” Gotye has some fairly daring ideas on what kind of percussion and 4 out of 4instrumentation to use – it’s innovative and unconventional, but not alienating. Which really sums up the album as a whole.

Go ahead and give Gotye a listen. I think this one’s going to wind up being on a lot of people’s “new discoveries” lists for 2012, and I for one plan to also put him on the “track down his older stuff and watch closely for what he does in the future” list.

Order this CD

  1. Making Mirrors (1:01)
  2. Easy Way Out (1:57)
  3. Somebody That I Used To Know featuring Kimbra (4:04)
  4. Smoke And Mirrors (5:13)
  5. I Feel Better (3:18)
  6. In Your Light (4:39)
  7. State Of The Art (5:15)
  8. Don’t Worry, We’ll Be Watching You (3:18)
  9. Giving Me A Chance (2:56)
  10. Save Me (3:53)
  11. Bronte (3:18)

Released by: Eleven
Release date: 2011
Total running time: 38:52

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