Annie Haslam – Annie In Wonderland

Annie Haslam - Annie In WonderlandTaking a break from her “day job” as the lead female vocalist of ’70s prog rock outfit Renaissance, Annie Haslam set out to record a solo debut that was an outlet for her self-penned tunes that just didn’t fit the Renaissance house style – but that doesn’t mean it sounds like anything else released in 1977. Haslam recruited former Move, ELO and Wizzard frontman Roy Wood to produce the album, and Wood was already known for his own distinctive style. He also didn’t exactly have a long list of production credits for projects that weren’t The Move, ELO or Wizzard.

The result is a quirky and eminently listenable album that showcases Annie Haslam somewhere between her Carole King-esque singer/songwriter mode and something closer to Kate Bush territory, and also gives multi-instrumental whiz kid Wood full reign. A blast of brass opens the album with “If I Was Made Of Music”, but the production work never overshadows Haslam’s voice, which always has center stage. “I Never Believed In Love” is one of three songs actually written by Wood, and it bears the hallmarks of his vaguely-Beatlesque oddball Move-era songwriting.

It’s the next song, however, that can blow your hair back – Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “If I Loved You” (from the musical Carousel) gives Haslam’s considerably vocal range a real chance to shine, accompanied by an ocean of multi-tracked balalaikas. It’s not like any other rendition of this particular song or, indeed, like anything else you’ve heard before. (It’s not for nothing that, of all the songs on Annie In Wonderland, this song was chosen to be dissected and analyzed in detail on a BBC Radio special celebrating Roy Wood’s career.)

Almost as mind-blowing for its sheer display of Haslam’s near-operatic range is the soaring, wordless vocal of the otherwise-instrumental “Rockalise”. Drastic key/octave changes are also central to “Inside My Life”, which is as close as thiis album comes to typical ’70s singer/songwriter stylings – and in the capable hands of Haslam and Wood, it’s still not terribly close to typical.

What’s most surprising here is that this was the first and final collaboration between Annie Haslam and Roy Wood, but there’s another story there: they got engaged as Annie In Wonderland was being recorded, and never married over what’s said to have been a four-year relationship. Annie In Wonderland was a career-making album in the UK (and sadly overlooked elsewhere), and by all rights should have kick-started Wood’s career as well as Annie Haslam’s. 4 out of 4That it didn’t is truly sad; this album’s inventiveness and willingness to overstep the usual bounds of pop music are off-the-scale. Future collaborations could have been beneficial to all involved, but alas, it wasn’t to be, leaving Annie In Wonderland as a singular achievement that launched Haslam on a whole new career trajectory away from Renaissaince. Very highly recommended.

Order this CD

  1. Introlise / If I Were Made Of Music (4:46)
  2. I Never Believed In Love (3:40)
  3. If I Loved You (4:39)
  4. Hunioco (7:33)
  5. Rockalise (6:09)
  6. Nature Boy (4:56)
  7. Discuss it!Inside My Life (4:51)
  8. Going Home (5:01)

Released by: Warner Bros.
Release date: 1977
Total running time: 41:35

Kelly Groucutt – Kelly

Kelly Groucutt - KellyReleased on vinyl in 1982, and then reprinted on CD circa 2001 as a fan club exclusive and again as a general release in 2009, Kelly is the sole solo outing for the late Kelly Groucutt, whose musical claim to fame was as the bassist and soaring backup vocalist for ELO and, later, ELO Part II / The Orchestra. Groucutt had the help of most of his bandmates in recording his album, with the most conspicuous holdout being Jeff Lynne himself; perhaps not surprisingly, the entire album is very much in the style of ELO’s halcyon days (namely the mid/late 1970s). Groucutt was already an integral part of the ELO sound from that period, and Kelly can almost be seen – or heard – as an audition for the opportunity to take an even wider role creatively within the group.

As always, Groucutt’s vocal range is beyond merely impressive, and his singing voice doesn’t thin out when he edges toward baritone or falsetto. Having seen him play live with ELO Part II, I can vouch for the fact that the man could, quite simply, belt out a tune – and with his vocal abilities, he could belt out nearly any tune you can think of. But Kelly also shows off his songwriting abilities, and it’s quite evident that Groucutt was paying very very close attention to how songs were put together in ELO’s signature style; much of this album could fit in seamlessly on nearly any ELO album between Face The Music and Time (the ELO album whose release immediately preceded Kelly).

Songs like “Am I A Dreamer” (presented here in both demo and finished recordings) and “Sea Of Dreams” seem like they could’ve been strong candidates to become classic ELO songs. Groucutt also clearly shared Lynne’s love of classic ’50s rock – his background vocal arrangements are very reminiscent of Lynne’s work, but they also have just a hint of doo-wop to them. “Midnight Train” and “Black Hearted Woman” show ’70s roots, but the former especially highlights the unique rapport between Groucutt and ELO violinist Mik Kaminski, who provides hoedown-worthy fiddle work as well as coaxing “train whistle” effects out of his violin. The two would later form OrKestra, which would later be absorbed by ELO Part II.

There is, however, one huge problem with the re-release of Kelly that’s distressing: the sound quality. I’m assuming that the original vinyl release of Kelly didn’t sound like this does: the CD winds up sounding like it was mastered from a very well-worn cassette tape. Disappointingly, most of the songs sound tinny and hollow, with almost no bass frequencies… which is almost a slap in the face to the memory of someone who was, in fact, a bass player. Actually, I have a confession to make: back in the heady days of Napster, before this album was re-released, I downloaded several individual tracks from someone’s vinyl-to-CD-R copy of Kelly because I’d heard of the album but had never actually heard any of the songs… and to be brutally honest, the commercially-released CD sounds like it was mastered from those very badly-recorded, lo-fi MP3 tracks.

I give high marks for the music: Kelly Groucutt was willing, ready, and capable of taking a more direct creative role in the future of ELO, but – again, to be brutally honest – by this time Jeff Lynne had almost certainly realized that his future fortunes rested with holding the publishing rights to ELO’s output, and therefore wasn’t about to let go of the “central / sole songwriter” role. Which is unfortunate, because his sideman was clearly ready to help out. (I have to say that this also makes me reconsider Lynne’s more recent complaints, in some of the remastered ELO catalog’s liner notes, about bearing the heavy creative burden of the group alone; having heard Kelly, I call BS. More creative energy was there if he had only permitted it. I’m not going to say that a Lynne/Groucutt songwriting partnership would’ve 3 out of 4been another Lennon/McCartney, but it might have kept ELO on track or extended the group’s life span.)

Now I’d just like to see someone honor Mr. Groucutt’s memory by carrying out a proper remastering of his one solo album. These are great songs – I’d just like to hear them in a sound quality that befits the quality of the songwriting and performance on display here. (Feel free to do the same with OrKestra’s unreleased-on-CD album too, while you’re at it.)

Order this CD

  1. Am I A Dreamer (3:45)
  2. Oh Little Darling (3:29)
  3. Dear Mama (4:33)
  4. You Don’t Need To Hold Me Tight (3:56)
  5. Black Hearted Woman (3:27)
  6. Midnight Train (3:52)
  7. Don’t Wanna Hear That Song Again (3:12)
  8. Anything Goes With Me (3:33)
  9. Can’t Stand The Morning (3:11)
  10. Old Rock & Roller (3:48)
  11. You’ve Been Telling Lies (3:10)
  12. Sea Of Dreams (4:47)
  13. I’ll Cry For You Tonight (4:06)
  14. Am I A Dreamer (3:42)

Released by: Renaissance
Release date: 1982 / reissued in 2009
Total running time: 52:31

Electric Light Orchesta – Out Of The Blue (remaster)

ELO - Out Of The BlueOut Of The Blue is, quite simply, one of the most iconic albums of the ’70s, hands-down. It seems that, despite its intricate arrangements and impeccable musicianship, this album will simply never have the rock critic cachet of, say, Dark Side Of The Moon. And yet these days, one hears more young artists coming out of the woodwork trying to achieve the sound of Jeff Lynne and company than one hears Pink Floyd sound-alikes. You can do the math there if you like.

This remastered edition adds only a handful of bonus material, largely because the original double LP takes up most of a single CD. (I would’ve been happy to go to two CDs, a la the remasters of ELO’s first two albums, but there’s not much indication that there was really enough material to go that route.) The one full bonus track that isn’t a demo or other form of outtake is the lovely “Latitude 88 North,” a song which, according to the notes, was partially written at the same time as the other Out Of The Blue tracks but just didn’t make the cut. Of the various bonus tracks that have come along since the Flashback box set ushered in this new era of “remastered with a few freshly recorded bonus tracks” activity, “Latitude 88 North” is the best one to come along since “Love Changes All” and “Helpless” (or, for that matter, Zoom). Even if it’s clearly a recent recording (at best, the song itself may be 30 years old, but the track itself is much more recent), it’s a great song that hearkens back to ELO’s glory days, and it at least sounds closer to that classic style than “Surrender” (from the remastered A New World Record) does. Bringing up the rear are an excerpt from a demo of “Wild West Hero” (which demonstrates great harmony, but lousy lyrics that were replaced in the final version) and the rousing instrumental “The Quick And The Daft”, which most certainly is a 1977 original – good material for serious fans and students of ELO’s work to chew on, but nothing that will really excite casual listeners.

Fortunately for casual listeners, one of the most iconic albums of the ’70s is still here, perfectly intact and remastered, and it’s never sounded better. The remastering isn’t so radical as to have me reassesing my favorite songs, but it’s nice to hear them cleaned up and sounding sharper than ever before. The booklet-style case is also a treat, with an extensive set of notes about the making of Out Of The Blue. There’s a standard version of this CD with a slightly pared-down version of that booklet, but the deluxe edition – bound like a little book, featuring the full liner notes and even a miniature replica of the original LP’s punch-out cardstock spaceship – is a real treat for fans of the band’s work. I’ll admit I just haven’t had the heart to punch out the spaceship and build it, though; I did that with the one that came with the LP, years and years and years ago, and lost track of that one; I think I’ll leave this one intact, and maybe when my own child is around the same age I was when I first heard this album, it’ll be punched out and put together.

Rating: 4 out of 4Not a bad package at all, celebrating an album that means a lot to quite a few people, even those who would never in a million years profess to be ELO fans. Though I’d wager that the original release of Out Of The Blue created plenty of those as well.

    Order this CD in the Store

  1. Turn To Stone (3:49)
  2. It’s Over (4:08)
  3. Sweet Talkin’ Woman (3:49)
  4. Across The Border (3:53)
  5. Night In The City (4:03)
  6. Starlight (4:31)
  7. Jungle (3:53)
  8. Believe Me Now (1:21)
  9. Steppin’ Out (4:40)
  10. Standin’ In The Rain (3:59)
  11. Big Wheels (5:32)
  12. Summer And Lightning (4:15)
  13. Mr. Blue Sky (5:03)
  14. Sweet Is The Night (3:27)
  15. The Whale (5:07)
  16. Birmingham Blues (4:23)
  17. Wild West Hero (4:45)
  18. Wild West Hero (alternate bridge – home demo) (0:26)
  19. The Quick And The Daft (1:50)
  20. Latitude 88 North (3:24)

Released by: Epic / Legacy
Release date: 2007 (originally released in 1977)
Total running time: 76:18

Electric Light Orchestra – Face The Music (remaster)

ELO - Face The MusicOne of the three most recently remastered ELO albums, Face The Music is long overdue for a fresh listen, being – arguably – the first album of the band’s golden years. It’s also the album with “Evil Woman” and “Face The Music” on it, which certainly doesn’t hurt. (Sadly, during the remastering process, nobody remembered to kick “Down Home Town” out of the original track listing.)

As with the other remastered titles from ELO’s back catalog, the sound has been sharpened up quite a bit, softening a few rough edges that had become noticeable with repeat listens. The obligatory bonus tracks are included as well, though they’re not much to write home about. In the liner notes booklet, Jeff Lynne says he prefers the slightly longer, stripped-down and orchestra-free new mix of “Evil Woman,” but even with that extra verse and chorus that we hadn’t heard before, something is just missing without that big string section adding to the song. Similarly, a series of demos for the menacing “Fire On High” intro will interest serious students of Lynne’s work, but maybe not anyone else, and the U.S. single edit of “Strange Magic” isn’t so staggeringly different as to be a real revelation.

That said, it’s surprising that a song that we have heard before turns out to be the real gem of the bonus tracks. Closing out this new edition of Face The Music is a completely instrumental mix of Waterfall, with the full-up instrumentation both from ELO’s rhythm section and from the studio orchestra – all that’s missing is the vocals. (Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I’m wondering if Lynne’s ever thought of re-re-releasing some of ELO’s material in this form, both for the karaoke fans out there and those of us who just love the intricate arrangements.) Heard in all of its vocal-less glory, “Waterfall” is an excellent candidate for this treatment, standing out as a fantastic performance even as an instrumental.

Rating: 4 out of 4Whether or not one really great instrumental of a song you’ve already heard is worth buying the album over again is up to you, but that alone is just about worth the price of admission for die-hard ELO fans – and in the end, “Down Home Town” aside, Face The Music is still a fine album and a prime specimen of early ’70s rock.

    Order this CD in the Store

  1. Fire On High (5:31)
  2. Waterfall (4:11)
  3. Evil Woman (4:29)
  4. Nightrider (4:26)
  5. Poker (3:32)
  6. Strange Magic (4:29)
  7. Down Home Town (3:54)
  8. One Summer Dream (5:51)
  9. Fire On High Intro (alternate mix) (3:23)
  10. Evil Woman (stripped-down mix) (5:00)
  11. Strange Magic (U.S. single edit) (3:27)
  12. Waterfall (instrumental mix) (4:15)

Released by: Epic / Legacy
Release date: 2006 (originally released in 1975)
Total running time: 52:28

The Orchestra – No Rewind

The Orchestra - No RewindAfter nearly ten years of touring and recording, Electric Light Orchestra Part II – which included original ELO veterans Bev Bevan, Kelly Groucutt, Louis Clark and Mik Kaminski – met its match. It wasn’t touring exhaustion – unlike the usually reclusive Jeff Lynne, these guys love playing live. In this case, it was Lynne himself, who was in the process of reclaiming the ELO name for an upcoming greatest hits box set and an all-new album of original Lynne material; Lynne wanted any other use of the ELO name dropped. Drummer Bev Bevan, who had been with ELO ever since the band evolved from The Move in 1971, decided not only to give up the ELO Part II moniker, but to retire from performing as well.

This left ELO Part II – now consisting of Groucutt, Clark, Kaminski, Eric Troyer and newly recruited guitarist Parthenon Huxley – with no drummer and no name. Huxley called on a friend of his, a fellow L.A. session player named Gordon Townsend, to audition for the open drum seat, and the rest of the band approved. Rechristened The Orchestra, the band continued touring, also booking studio time out of their own pockets on several tour stops to lay down tracks for a new album. The result, which the band proudly proclaims was created without a single cent of money from any labels or outside benefactors, is No Rewind, which marks an incredible reinvention of the group’s sound.

The band’s new blood – Huxley and Townsend – asserts itself right off the bat with “Jewel And Johnny”. Kicking off with a beat not a million miles away from the fun, jaunty gait of “Mr. Blue Sky” itself, Jewel and Johnny shows that the new recruits have, in fact, brought The Orchestra that much closer to the sound of old-school ELO. (It’s worth noting at this juncture that Huxley is from the same pool of reared-on-the-70s L.A. power pop talent that has also given us Jason Falkner and Jon Brion.) There were tracks on both of ELO Part II’s studio albums that faintly irritated me because they made it sound like the group was trying to bring a hard rock sound to the table; not so with No Rewind. The songs here are finely crafted pop-rock with a Beatlesque sensibility, which is, ironically, what Jeff Lynne was always trying to do with the original ELO. And the songs featuring Huxley on lead vocals are a real treat, because it sure doesn’t hurt that Huxley’s versatile baritone isn’t a million miles away from the voice of the aforementioned Mr. Lynne. Whether consciously or not, there seems to have been a reassessment of what made the original ELO what it was; the songwriting is sharper this time around, both musically and lyrically, with fantastic results.

Highlights include “Jewel And Johnny”, the mesmerizing and majestic “Let Me Dream” (co-written by ELO Part II veteran Eric Troyer and original ELO violin virtuoso Mik Kaminski), “Can’t Wait To See You” (another tune written and sung by Huxley, which is as close as one can imagine to a lost Jeff Lynne song), and the Troyer-written tracks “No Rewind” and “Say Goodbye”. The orchestral components of each song are several orders of magnitude beyond most of the output of ELO Part II – arranger Louis Clark is all over this album, imbuing the new songs with the densely layered string sound he gave to the classic ELO albums A New World Record and Out Of The Blue, but also wisely backing off and giving Mik Kaminski numerous opportunities to wow us with a single violin.

Curiously absent, however, are many frontman opportunities for classic ELO bassist/backup singer Kelly Groucutt; when he joined ELO Part II full-time in 1991, his distinctive background vocals brought the whole exercise much closer to being “real ELO.” He was all over the next studio album as both lead and background vocalist, as much as any one member of the band could be with the rotating-vocalist scheme, but he’s in the lead on only two out of ten songs here.

One of those two songs, incidentally, is a reworking of “Twist And Shout” which is almost funny in how it deceptively repaints the song as a downbeat dirge before allowing the original tune to emerge. Once we’re in familiar territory, however, it’s pretty much a pastiche of the Beatles’ cover of “Twist And Shout”, which is my one disappointment with No Rewind – all of the other songs are not only originals, but damned good originals. Ironically, the best of those originals sound more worthy of the ELO name than anything the band’s done before – so naturally, they’re no longer permitted to use the name.

No Rewind, whether in its limited (and now out-of-print) edition issued through the band’s official web site or in a real live label release from, of all places, Argentina, is worth a listen. When I first heard it, I was thinking rating: 4 out of 4“Dear Jeff Lynne, get back together with your old bandmates.” But having listened to No Rewind more and more, and taking into consideration that it’s taking a long time for either Lynne or his erstwhile bandmates to release new material, I retract that. There are now two entities turning out an increasingly uncommon kind of music that I love. And that’s not a bad deal.

Order this CD

  1. Jewel & Johnny (3:56)
  2. Say Goodbye (4:25)
  3. No Rewind (4:07)
  4. Over London Skies (4:32)
  5. Twist And Shout (6:34)
  6. Can’t Wait To See You (3:28)
  7. If Only (4:38)
  8. I Could Write A Book (3:12)
  9. Let Me Dream (4:01)
  10. Before We Go (5:03)

Released by: ART Music (Argentinian release)
Release date: 2005
Total running time: 44:01

Roy Wood – Starting Up

Roy Wood - Starting UpThe year is 1985. Euro-pop has taken hold, but is rapidly giving way to watered-down hard rock “hair” bands. And despite having a fine and, it must be said, multi-colored head of hair, if you’re old school rocker Roy Wood (founding member of The Move and ELO), you fit into neither of these categories.

Not that he didn’t try, mind you. Woody’s always been an advocate of reinventing his sound, of trying to do something that either hasn’t been done before in rock ‘n’ roll or trying to bring back something that’s fallen out of favor. After trying to give rock music a full-time string section with Electric Light Orchestra, he moved on to create groups like Wizzard and Helicopters, centered around a 50s-style wall-of-saxophone sound. (It’s this last permutation that seems to have stuck, as Wood still tours to this day with Roy Wood’s Big Band.) But in ’84, Wood returned briefly to what he did with his underrated 1975 classic Boulders – recording everything by himself – only with much more modern tools at his disposal.

The sole drawback to this: Starting Up probably could have charted in 1980 or 1981, when the sound of synths and drum machines was fresh where the mainstream was concerned. And Wood’s voice isn’t a million miles away from, say, Gary Numan’s. It wouldn’t have been a bad fit for the early days of synth pop. But in 1985, most of the songs on this album already sounded dated, and 20 years later, time hasn’t been much kinder to them.

Oddly enough, one of the only two tracks that stand head and shoulders above the rest suffers (or perhaps benefits) from a near-total sonic disconnect from every other song on the album. Featuring Louis Clark (of Hooked On Classics fame, and longtime orchestral arranger for ELO) and a full orchestra backing, “On Top Of The World” is a catchy song with a snazzy tune, and easily Wood’s best vocals on the whole album. It’s like this song dropped in from a better-written, better-produced album that we’ve never gotten to hear. The other standout track, “Turn Your Body To The Light”, is a nice melding of synths and Wood’s trademark sax, and it’s a catchy tune too. These two songs easily eclipse the rest of the album.

And let’s set one thing straight – drum machines alone don’t doom a song to cheesiness. Two demos Wood recorded with old friend and former bandmate Jeff Lynne circa 1990 have leaked out, very simple, low-tech productions showcasing a couple of beautifully written nuggets of rock ‘n’ roll that most of the world has never gotten to hear. And that’s what Starting Up is really missing: well-written songs. This is the same Roy Wood who gave us “Blackberry Way” and “Fire Brigade” back in the Move days, and has peppered his solo career with lesser-known but equally-worthwhile songs like “Dear Elaine”…not that you could tell from listening to Starting Up. To put the cards on the table: his songs this time around either weren’t as inspired, or the intent got lost in the execution.

2 out of 4A real curate’s egg, this one, and it’s also Woody’s last solo album to date. Considering what his former bandmate was able to accomplish with Zoom under the ELO banner, I’d really like to hear Roy Wood come back and zing us with a solo project now. Because, as hard as I’m sure he tried to accomplish something unique with Starting Up, he’d almost certainly do better with the technology and techniques available today…and he’s had time to write some new songs too.

Order this CD

  1. Red Cars Are After Me (3:56)
  2. Raining In The City (4:17)
  3. Under Fire (4:24)
  4. Turn Your Body To The Light (4:31)
  5. Hot Cars (3:13)
  6. Starting Out (3:20)
  7. Keep It Steady (3:49)
  8. On Top Of The World (3:30)
  9. Ships In The Night (5:04)

Released by: Castle
Release date: 1985
Total running time: 36:04

ELO Part II – One Night: Live In Australia

Electric Light Orchestra Part Two - One Night: Live In AustraliaJust as often as ELO Part II fails to live up to its ancestry in the studio, this band amazes me live. I mentioned earlier that Greatest Hits Live With The Moscow Symphony Orchestra is not an accurate reporting of ELO Part II’s live sound. On the other hand, One Night is good – it’s a true rarity, a live album I actually like. For all of the failings of the original material written by Part II, they do justice to Jeff Lynne’s classic ELO numbers that the original band simply never had the sheer number of performers to pull off. And to make this album even better, there’s a recording of “Ain’t Necessarily So”, a real humdinger of an original tune which is specially tailored to the new band’s strong points: harmony Rating: 3 out of 4and hard rock. I hope they commit this song to tape on their next studio album – they could actually turn into real contenders. I highly recommend this to you – or better yet, if ELO Part II comes anywhere near you, get some tickets and go see the show, and this album will make an excellent reminder of the group’s live sound.

    Order this CD in the Store

  1. Standing In The Rain (4:43)
  2. Evil Woman (4:01)
  3. Don’t Wanna (4:04)
  4. Showdown (4:55)
  5. Can’t Get It Out Of My Head (6:36)
  6. Whiskey Girls (3:47)
  7. Livin’ Thing (3:53)
  8. One More Tomorrow (5:11)
  9. Mr. Blue Sky (5:01)
  10. Telephone Line (4:49)
  11. Ain’t Necessarily So (4:02)
  12. Strange Magic (2:11)
  13. Sweet Talking Woman (2:04)
  14. Confusion (1:52)
  15. Do Ya (2:27)
  16. Rockaria! (3:15)
  17. Roll Over Beethoven (5:55)
  18. Don’t Bring Me Down (4:19)

Released by: CMC International Records
Release date: 1997
Total running time: 73:13