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Old 10-17-2021, 07:43 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Trollheart's Album Discography Reviews: Electric Light Orchestra

The time seems right for this, as people are discussing it in its own thread, so here we go.

ELO, or the Electric Light Orchestra, were I believe the first band I truly got into. I came to them, of course, as most if not all of us did, through their hit singles, such as "Don't Bring Me Down" and "Mister Blue Sky", but once I bought Out of the Blue that was it: I was a fan for life. Still am, despite the band basically consisting of Jeff Lynne these days. Over their career they had some stellar albums and rarely put a foot wrong. Some real classics, but I'm going to kick this off with something not quite obscure, but not as well known as their most famous recordings.

Face the Music (1975)


Like I say, I was always a huge ELO fan, even long before I got my first record player (turntable to you, sonny!) and naturally once I did purchase that coveted item - even if it was powered by valves and got so hot it had to be switched off after every record, allowed cool down before being used again! - the albums of ELO were the first I bought. Discovery, A New World Record and of course Out of the Blue were the first ones I got, then for my birthday I was presented with a three-album box set which was comprised of El Dorado, On the Third Day and this one, three albums in chronological order. While I loved El Dorado (and still do) and was pretty meh about On the Third Day, this album initially scared me, believe it or not, from the first track. What an idiot! But to hear more and understand why it had that effect on me, read on.

This was the first album to gain substantial sales for the band, giving them their first platinum album, though it failed to chart. It did however yield a future classic in the single "Evil Woman", and was the first of their albums to feature new boys Kelly Groucutt on bass and Melvyn Gale on cello; they would remain with ELO up to 1983 in Groucutt's case and 1979 in Gale's. This album was also one of the only ones to feature a different lead vocal to that of Jeff Lynne, on "Poker", where Groucutt took the mike. Face the Music would pave the way for future chart successes A New World Record, Discovery and Out of the Blue, which throughout the later part of the seventies would give them their biggest hit singles and their first number one album.

So why was I so scared of it? Well, not scared really but uneasy. I've always been averse to horror movies, the more psychological the horror the worse it affects me, and the opener on this album, "Fire On High", is created with that idea in mind; essentially I believe it's meant to conjure up images of Hell. It starts with wailing voices, spooky piano and then ghostly violin, with a backward-masked track saying what I thought at the time was "Damn you! Damn you!" What it actually says is "Music is reversible. Time is not. Turn back. Turn back." But with the moaning and the weird sound of a backwards voice it comes across as pretty frightening. Well, it did to me. The whole thing then sounds like the soundtrack to a horror movie, with wails, screams, the sound of echoing footsteps, whips, an angelic choir... sensory overload for me. Add to this the devilish violins and cellos and it just all sounds like something out of Dante. Until that is the guitar comes in alongside soft strings and Ben Bevan's pounding drums, and a melody of sorts finally gets going, the "scary sounds" fading out in the background.

A Spanish guitar then gets going as the thing takes off in a sort of flamenco style, the melody clearly established now, and the second half of the piece, all instrumental, is much more recognisable as music. Celestial strings merge with soaring electric guitar and thumping percussion and it slows down on the back of gentle falling guitar with choral voices raised, then it all ends in a big finish on that Spanish guitar and violins. After such an ambitious piece - and quite brave to start the album off with that - "Waterfall" is much more accessible. A slow, soft ballad with lovely guitar and strong strings section whereafter we first hear the voice of Jeff Lynne backed by Richard Tandy's solo piano, until the heavy percussion cuts in and the song takes off, one of ELO's many lovely ballads. It showcases the undeniable vocal talents of Lynne, who would of course go on to be identified as the voice of ELO on such hits as "Mister Blue Sky", "Don't Bring Me Down" and "Last Train to London". It also highlights his spectacular songwriting ability - every song here is written and composed by him, and to write two tracks as poles apart as "Fire On High" and "Waterfall" is no mean feat.

Eight tracks may seem like very poor value for money, but this was the age of vinyl, and most artists would only be able to fit four tracks per side onto their albums; if more were required you'd be looking at a double, as in the case of the later Out of the Blue. Double albums were more expensive of course, so hard-pressed record buyers might baulk at shelling out. The big hit is up next, and "Evil Woman" is a real mid-paced rocker with some great piano, and in fact was ELO's first hit on both sides of the Atlantic, hitting the top ten on both the US and the UK. As a song, it tends to rely more on guitar and piano than later songs which would utilise the whole string section of the orchestra, as it were, though the violins and cellos are in there. It's also the first song on the album to feature female backing vocals, perhaps odd given the title? "Nightrider" starts off with a solo violin piece and Lynne singing the vocal, a little bass then Bev Bevan's drums thunder in and the rest of the band comes in on the back of that for the chorus. It's a powerful, driving song, with some lovely orchestral passages and great drumming from Bevan.

As I mentioned, the only song on the album to feature vocals other than those of Jeff Lynne is "Poker", a song about, well, poker, with a great snarling guitar intro and it's the closest to hard rock on the album, almost recalling the later Meat Loaf's "Dead ringer for love" in places. With a fast-flowing keyboard from Tandy and indeed a rapid-fire vocal delivery from Kelly Groucutt it's a little different to the ELO I had come to know and love, and took a little getting used to but now it's a favourite of mine. A slow piece in the middle only accentuates and throws into sharp relief the returning almost-metal guitar that takes the song to its conclusion. Hey! ELO could rock, ya know? A big orchestral intro then, in contrast, to "Strange Magic", but it fades out and is replaced by a high-pitched guitar, the song another ballad, with Lynne back on vocals, and this time Richard Tandy on guitar.

For me, the low point of the album, if it has one, comes with "Down Home Town", which is basically a country jamboree with a weird vocal opening and then violins and heavy drumming with folky guitar taking the melody almost like a banjo. They even throw in a Dixieland line! It's interesting I guess but it was always a track I skipped when playing the album, and moved on to the closer, the beautiful, lazy "One Summer Dream", with its soft cello opening and wistful vocal from Lynne, then joined by chingling guitar and measured drumming with a kind of echoing effect running through it. It's another fine example of just how excellent a ballad Lynne could write, and it just sort of slides along like a river winding its way down a mountain, or a gentle breeze sailing over the land (both of which descriptions are I think in the lyric, so don't bother telling me). A soft backing vocal merges with some gentle violin and the last three minutes or so of the song are pretty much instrumental, with the exception of the singing of the title mostly, in a kind of fading echo as it winds towards its conclusion. Superb ending to an album which, while not at the top of my ELO list, is certainly one of their better ones.

TRACK LISTING

1. Fire On High
2. Waterfall
3. Evil Woman
4. Nightrider
5. Poker
6. Strange Magic
7. Down Home Town
8. One Summer Dream

If you put a gun to my head and threatened me to come up with my top three ELO albums they would almost certainly be Out of the Blue, El Dorado and one other, though I don't know which. Time? Secret Messages? A New World Record? Okay, okay! I'm thinking! It's not easy to concentrate with that thing in my face! Point is, I easily know my two favourite album from this band but the rest are generally all pretty much as good as one another, with the exception perhaps of On the Third Day and Balance of Power. But Face the Music, though it wouldn't come as I say high in that list, would be in the top ten certainly. An album with maybe one weak track is not to be sniffed at , and we are talking mid seventies here. At any rate, it was the one that more or less broke ELO, or led to them breaking commercially. The next one, A New World Record, would start a sequence of albums that would all hit the top ten on both sides of the water, and establish the Electric Light Orchestra as a household name and a constant presence in the charts.

I'm just glad I can finally listen to "Fire On High" without getting the heebie-jeebies any more!

Rating: 7.9/10
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Old 11-02-2021, 08:56 PM   #2 (permalink)
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A New World Record (1976)

Though they had had a hit in the US with “Can’t Get it Out of My Head” from their 1974 album El Dorado, most people back home still did not know who ELO were at this point. This album was the one to change all of that. It broke them commercially, giving them no less than four hit singles, taking the album itself into the top ten in both the UK and the USA, and selling over five million units in its first year of release. After this, nobody - whether they liked them or not - would be able to say “EL Who?” The album marks a move away from the more ponderous, classically-based compositions of previous efforts like Face the Music and On the Third Day, and looks more to the accessible, pop sensibilities of songs from El Dorado while yet keeping the strings, choir and orchestra very much to the forefront.

There’s a very clever double entendre in the album title. It is, for them, a new world record - their first album to chart properly and their first (but by no means last) to break the States, as well as their first recording to hit such a height in sales - but also it is, as the title track notes, the record of a new world, as we’ll, um, explore, when we get to that track. It kicks off though on “Tightrope”, with spacey sounds, almost like the opening to El Dorado, but which get louder and can now be made out to be the approach of a spacecraft, then dark strings and orchestra get going in what has become almost typical ELO style before a choir comes in and then, just when you think this is some sort of overture there’s a staggered descent on keys into rock and roll guitar and things get going. Lynne’s lyric could be characterising the fortunes of the band to date - “They say somedays you gonna win/ They say somedays you gonna lose/ I tell you I got news for you/ You losing all the time you never win.” Not true of this album, my son.

The easy-on-the-ear, catchy nature of Lynne’s latest work here is evident; these are pop songs, intended for radio and, hopefully, for the charts, which is where many of them are headed. There’s a great sense of exuberance and joy in this song, and it’s hard to stay still while listening to it. Some use of echoed vocals here, which would become another trademark of ELO, lots of “Whoo!” sounds and then we’re into a reprise of, if you like, the overture to the song, forming a kind of middle eighth with the choir before it goes right back to the guitar. Great opener, and it leads into the first hit single, and one of my favourites of theirs. Starting off with the sound of a touch-tone telephone, then ringing, Richard Tandy’s solid keyboard pours all over the track as “Telephone Line” gets going on Lynne’s lonely, all but mono speaking voice with the opening lines “Hello, how are you? Have you been all right/ Through all the lonely lonely night?” Almost a message to the fans who have waited so long for a breakthrough album, perhaps?

If you’re any fan at all, you’ll know this song, even if, like Bob, you hate it, and Lynne’s melancholic electric piano carries the first lines of the verse before the orchestra comes in and the chorus is a masterclass in vocal harmonies. There’s even some doo-wop in there for good measure. The chorus future references one of their later hits when he sings “Oh, oh, telephone line, give me some time/ I’m living in twilight. It’s not hard to envisage this being on the radio and climbing the charts, as indeed it was and it did, performing almost identically on both sides of the Atlantic, making it to number eight in the UK and one better in the USA. I must admit I’ve never been the biggest fan of “Rockaria!” but it delivers what it promises, an operatic aria opening the song before it kicks into a very Chuck Berry-like rock song as Lynne tries to convert an opera diva into a rock and roller. It’s a fun song I guess but it just has never done anything for me.

But who the hell cares about me? Another hit, it reached number nine in the UK, but seems to have passed over the heads of the Americans, who probably didn’t get it. Opera? You mean Star Wars? Great guitar work no doubt, and the orchestra really gets it on, the aria courtesy of Welsh soprano Mary Walsh, and in a sly nudge to the fans Lynne apparently left in the false start when she began singing before the music was ready. Quite endearing in a way; you can hear her go “oops!” The title track is up next, and here’s where the album title gets its double meaning. “Mission (A World Record)” is viewed from the standpoint of the crew of an alien ship who have come to monitor Earth - thus this being the record of a new world, to them - and opens with that spaceship sound again before it develops into what will be very familiar to anyone who’s heard “Ticket to the Moon” from the Time album, released 1981.

A simple piano line carries the tune until the chorus when it’s all hands on deck with some beautiful slide guitar and cello, the tone getting a little darker and almost Spanish in ways, or so it seems to me anyway. One thing I really love(d) about ELO was the fact that they knew not to overextend themselves, and here none of the songs run for over five minutes (well, the closer is five and a half) so you’re not listening to any epics and your attention rarely has time to wander. I wouldn’t say the title track is close to the best on the album, but it’s impressive, and when Lynne’s vocal gets ragged and emotional it’s very effective, almost lyrically a “Watcher of the Skies” in reverse. Sort of. First use on the album I think of the vocoder, which would become a regular weapon in ELO’s arsenal, and which they would help popularise in pop music.

“So Fine” has a sort of Beach Boys feel to it, very upbeat, very surf rock wedded to strings with a chunky guitar alongside sonorous cello and a simple idea in the lyric. Exceptionally catchy, more “woo-woo!” going on, a very simple chorus, perfect radio fare. No a hit single (not even a single) it features African tribal drumming in the midsection which is then joined by the orchestra, making it very sort of samba-flavoured, and it leads into another hit in “Livin’ Thing” which starts off with violin and trumpet and then gets going in another upbeat pop style, which gave them their highest chart placing at the time, reaching number four in the UK and hovering just outside the top ten in the States. More echoed vocal, and female backing vocals, another song that you kind of need to dance to.

A total contrast in the next two tracks: “Above the Clouds” features group vocals against rising strings in a sort of blues style. The song owes a lot to the Beatles, also the Beach Boys, with some very layered vocals, a short song, just over two minutes, and again foreshadowing a track on their next album with the lyric “You’d better believe me now. Just as you’re relaxing and closing your eyes to this though, sharp, nasty guitar kicks up upside the head and “Do Ya” is a hard, powerful, unapologetic re-working of one of the Move’s 1972 songs that just drags you all over the place with almost a sense of later Bryan Adams circa Reckless and some pretty spaced-out lyrics I must say. Lynne’s love of fifties and sixties rock and roll shines through on this song, something he would really never lose. The track however ends very similarly to how one of their biggest hits, “Mister Blue Sky” will do on the next album, a real orchestral ending.

You can catch your breath though, as the album ends on a slow luxuriant ballad, “Shangri-La” tidying up the room and ushering you quietly and gently out with some fine vocal harmonies again and a literal tribute to the Fab Four as Lynne sings “Faded like the Beatles on Hey Jude.” The orchestra comes into its own here, with some lovely work from the choir too, and as warned in the lyric, the song fades away, leaving you with a definite feeling of wanting more.

TRACK LISTING

Tightrope
Telephone Line
Rockaria!
Mission (A World Record)
So Fine
Livin’ Thing
Above the Clouds
Do Ya
Shangri-La

It’s hard in these times, when ELO have become a household name and their albums sell in the tens of millions of units, to understand that their rise to fame was so slow. It took five albums and four years before they finally made it. Once they did, of course, it wasn’t a one-hit breakthrough but an all-out assault on the charts. A New World Record would be followed by the massive Out of the Blue and finally a number one album in 1979’s Discovery. Hell, even when they teamed up with Olivia Newton-John they ended up getting two major hit singles, one of them hitting the top slot.

This was it. This was the big time. After a hard slog with carefully crafted but largely ignored albums, I suppose you could say ELO pandered to the masses and it paid off, but they kept their core principles of crossing pop and rock music with classical, and this remained their defining characteristic all through their career.

Rating: 8.8/10
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Old 11-10-2021, 05:46 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Evil Woman is an amazing song. Just a ****ing jam to have in the background. And Hold on Tight just gets you going. I almost always unintentionally start accelerating when I listen to it driving.
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Old 11-11-2021, 06:33 AM   #4 (permalink)
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I listened to the whole of A New World Record for the first time today. Of course I knew the hits, which comprise about half of it.

I found I liked the lesser known tracks better, especially "Above the Clouds".

Of the big hits, "Livin' Thing" is the best. I never liked "Telephone Line", with that corny ring tone that got old very quickly.
I do think that Out of the Blue was a step up, and probably has the best combination of songwriting quality and "accessibility".
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