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Public Service Broadcasting – The Race For Space

The Race For SpaceA concept band tackling a concept album, Public Service Broadcasting applies its quirky style (mixing amazing musical proficiency with clips and samples from vintage public information films) to a singular topic: the technological sprint that took humanity from Sputnik to Tranquility Base in just over a decade. Individual tracks are devoted to everything from the earliest spacewalks to Valentina Tereshkova to the Apollo 1 fire.

The technical and musical highlight of The Race For Space is “Go!”, a rapid-fire piece built around the machine-gun pacing of the Apollo 11 flight director getting go/no-go reports from his room full of controllers. The result is that these rocket technicians are basically rapping over a piece of music built around their responses (which have been only slightly edited to keep a steady tempo). “E.V.A.”, “The Other Side” and “Gagarin” are upbeat numbers that combine vintage sound clips with musical virtuosity.

The most haunting piece is “Fire In The Cockpit”, which PSB has vowed never to play live out of respect to the Apollo 1 crew. The title track is a little bit on the ponderous side – I think that it’s a given that 3 out of 4Kennedy’s public urge for NASA to reach for the moon was a monumental moment, so piling a choir on top of that comes very close to over-egging the pudding.

It’s a neat history lesson, and one to which you can tap your toes or play a little air guitar. Public Service Broadcasting has carved out a fascinating little niche for itself, and I’m curious as to what they’ll do next after the remix album built around The Race For Space, due very soon.

Order this CD

  1. The Race For Space (2:39)
  2. Sputnik (7:09)
  3. Gagarin (3:48)
  4. Fire In The Cockpit (3:01)
  5. E.V.A. (4:15)
  6. The Other Side (6:19)
  7. Valentina (4:29)
  8. Go! (4:12)
  9. Tomorrow (7:22)

Released by: Test Card Recordings
Release date: February 23, 2015
Total running time: 43:14

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)

Welcome Home, Hayabusa

Welcome Home, HayabusaHayabusa was a Japanese space probe that landed on and sampled asteroid Itokawa in 2011. This would be a stunning space feat for any country’s space agency, but Japan happened to get there first, and the surge of national pride for this technological accomplishment has spawned no fewer than three movies, ranging from documentaries to – in the case of Okaeri Hayabusa (Welcome Home, Hayabusa) – a fictionalized family drama with the mission as backdrop and framing story.

And who better to score a movie whose drama takes place around the launch and flight of one of Japan’s crowning space achievements? None other than the late, great Japanese synth pioneer Isao Tomita. Whether you realize it or not, Tomita’s connection with space exploration is lengthy – and almost purely coincidental. Tomita’s late ’70s synth reworking of Debussy’s “Arabesque No. 1” was appropriated by the Miami Planetarium to top and tail each installment of the planetarium’s long-running PBS series Star Hustler (later Star Gazer, after the realities of the search engine age caught up with the show and began directing young viewers toward a certain adult periodical with “hustler” in the title). Tomita’s music was synonymous with astronomer Jack Horkheimer’s exuberant weekly lessons on amateur astronomy from then on.

Tomita is an absolutely brilliant choice to score this film. Not only is his synthesizer work as crisp and inventive as ever, but he gives brilliant musical accompaniment to visualizations of data being transmitted to Earth from deep space, and uses appropriately icy synths to illustrate the bleak emptiness of space traversed by Hayabusa. There have been many musical odes to major space missions, and by fairly high 4 out of 4profile composers (Vangelis springs to mind), but Tomita’s translation of event to music makes this among the best. This soundtrack also steps outside the usual all-synth comfort zone with which Tomita is associated, allowing the composer to bring his classical training into play with real trumpet solos, woodwinds and strings augmenting his normally “icy” synthesizers with a warmer human touch.

The real tragedy is that Japan has launched Hayabusa 2 to dare even mightier things, and Tomita is no longer around to give that mission its own soundtrack.

Order this CD

  1. Challenge To The Universe (5:03)
  2. Engineer Crush (1:20)
  3. Dreaming Of The Flyby (1:21)
  4. Toward The Asteroid (3:30)
  5. Touchdown On Itokawa! (2:43)
  6. Recollection Of Naoko (1:34)
  7. The Fight Against Sickness (3:23)
  8. 1-Bit Communication / Connecting The Hope (3:19)
  9. Mother’s Joy / Surgery Success (1:49)
  10. Cross Operation? (1:52)
  11. Finally To Return (1:36)
  12. Tristan & Isolde / From Beyond The Galaxy (8:15)
  13. Hayabusa / Tristan & Isolde To The Future (5:47)

Released by: Shochiku Records
Release date: 2-29-2012
Total running time: 41:32