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Friday, September 28, 2012

Electric Light Orchestra, "Out of The Blue"

Electric Light Orchestra
"Out of The Blue"
Jet (1977)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

Progressive rock bands tend to get a hard time from purist critics. Groups like Rush and King Crimson put out big and long pieces of music that my "friends" at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame refer to as "dinosaur rock," and choose to ignore the merits of. Most fans of prog rock will blanch at me considering the Electric Light Orchestra as a member of the genre, but let's consider: a rock band with a string section, that likes to screw around with synthesizers and vocoders, and that writes multi-song "suites" based on themes. Proggy enough for me. Personally, I think bands with complicated setups like ELO should be applauded for their ambition, if nothing else. And unfortunately, most of this post focuses on the nothing else.

The main problem with ELO is at the front of the store, which is a shame because the lyrics and vocals are the primary thing most listeners associate with a band. So even if the instrumentals are perfect, if you don't like the tone of the vocalist, you ignore everything else. I don't have a major issue with singer/bandleader Jeff Lynne's voice; it's a little quiet, but it gets things done. No, what drives me bonkers is the constant waves of falsetto harmonies. Falsettos should be used sparingly. They can add great spice to a piece, but it's easy to add too much to the recipe. I cringed during album opener "Turn to Stone," and it didn't stop ("Starlight" is the worst). Plus, the lyrics here aren't anything too deep. Whereas Rush comments on philosophy and politics (in space), ELO primarily churns out love-and-loss songs that would make for good Journey album filler (not a compliment).

The good news is that ELO definitely has its own identity, unlike scores of '70s rock bands. This is thanks to the light orchestra and strings, which is also the best part of the group. Lynne's orchestral ambitions led to the writing of "Concerto for A Rainy Day," the four-song third side of the album. It opens with "Standin' in The Rain," which makes up for its mundane lyrics by taking a group-vocals approach, adding an electro-harpsichord and featuring the strings at their best. "Summer and Lightning" includes a noteworthy bridge, and "Big Wheels" is the best ballad on the album, but single "Mr. Blue Sky" returns to the drudgery I complained of earlier.

I think a good deal of my complaints, at least with regards to the falsettos and lyrical tendencies, are just a sign of the times. I didn't grow up when these things were cool. But then again, King Crimson is still well regarded and Rush has actually increased its popularity in recent years. These bands chose styles and subject matters that stayed relevant, and worth listening to. And although it's great that ELO featured live strings on stage and in the studio, it doesn't sound any better on the record than a simple sample does nowadays. Apologies to ELO fans, but this music just didn't age well.

INTERESTING FACT: The band's 1972 U.S. debut album was titled "No Answer" because a secretary at the label called to inquire about the record's name and no one picked up. She left a note that said "No Answer," and it stuck.

Standin' in the Rain by Electric Light Orchestra on Grooveshark

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