Playlist #19

Week three of the school year rattles on. Here’s some tunes to carry you through.

  1. Gin Blossoms, “Just South of Nowhere”: The Gin Blossoms have become one of my favorite bands from the 90s, and this is one of my favorites by them. Pre-New Miserable Experience.
  2. Electric Light Orchestra, “Daybreaker”: An instrumental from the Jeff Lynne-led band. It’s off of On the Third Day, where ELO really became ELO.
  3. Rhiannon Giddens, “Better Get It Right the First Time”: This woman can write a damn song, lemme tell you. She also plays a mean banjo, though that’s not present on this track. This is more of an old-school R&B number, with a rap break that actually really works well.
  4. Robert Earl Keen, “The Road Goes On Forever (Live)”: “The road goes on forever/and the party never ends,” he sings, and I’m still not sure if that’s a statement of undeniable fact or a plea to never let go.
  5. The Who, “The Seeker”: Any song that references the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Timothy Leary in the same verse is some kinda wonderful.
  6. Patti Smith, “Because The Night”: When Bruce Springsteen gives you an unfinished song, you take it and you rock it out. Patti Smith definitely did.
  7. Paul McCartney, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”: Shortly after his first wife, Linda, passed away, Paul got into the studio with a bunch of buddies (including guitarist David Gilmore) to record a bunch of old 50s rockers and a few new tracks written in the same vein. They slap. They all slap. This one especially.
  8. Dawes, “That Western Skyline”: The first song off their first album is filled with so much promise. So much. Those Laurel Canyon harmonies are just perfect. The rest of the album – and honestly, everything they’ve put out since – feels like a failure of that promise.
  9. fun., “Some Nights”: Another band that falls flat right after their first song or two. Maybe what I expected from this song and what the band actually want to do are two very different things.
  10. Elliott Smith, “Either/Or”: It strikes me to this day that Elliott Smith died far too young. If I can be half – hell, even a quarter – of the guitar player or musician or songwriter that he was, I’d be perfectly happy with that.

Favorites: Electric Light Orchestra

I am a sucker for Beatles-based pop music. It’s cliche, but they’re my favorite band. Always have been. I may not listen to them as much as I did when I was younger, but I still know all the words to all the songs. I can sing along to the guitar solos. I can name the albums in order without looking.

You know who else could probably do that? Jeff Lynne of the band Electric Light Orchestra (or ELO, as I’ll be referring to them for the rest of this post). Lynne married the smart pop sensibilities of the Beatles to classical strings and weird keyboards, and created some of the best damn pop music ever.

ELO face the musicIt’s a tremendously clever idea, and Jeff Lynne is a damn solid songwriter. By turns serious and silly, bombastic and subtle, he wove together disparate elements into cohesive songs. Outside of diehard fans, though, I don’t think many people know who he is (he was the guy in the Traveling Wilburys who wasn’t George Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, or Roy Orbison). Yet he deserves accolades and admiration. The man is meticulous and precise, a perfectionist who tweaks and fiddles until everything is just so.

Lynne’s style, both as a solo artist and with ELO, is glossy and shiny. He takes the Phil Spector Wall of Sound approach and cranks it up to eleven, adding layers of shimmery guitars and soaring strings over odd keyboard riffs and a solid rhythm section. And his vocals . . . Lynne can do the warbling croon of Roy Orbison, then suddenly switch to Del Shannon’s falsetto, and it all sounds amazing.ELO_A_New_World_Record

If you’re interested in getting into ELO, where should you begin? Skip their first couple of records. The sound and the songwriting just aren’t quite there yet. And skip their last couple of albums from the mid-’80s, where the band is almost unrecognizable from its mid-’70s heyday. Start with either Face the Music, A New World Record, or Out of the Blue. They’re all excellent. Out of the Blue is a double album and gets sorta bogged down here and there, but it does feature some of the band’s best-known tunes, like “Turn to Stone,” “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” and “Mr. Blue Sky.” Face the Music starts with the amazing instrumental “Fire on High,” and then goes on to classics like “Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic.” It’s probably the least of the three classic-era albums, but it’s still damn solid. A New World Record is just awesome from beginning to end, featuring “Telephone Line,” the opera and classical music name-dropping “Rockaria!,” “Livin’ Thing,” and “Do Ya.” Honestly, I’d just start with that one.

ELO-Out_of_the_Blue_LpIf those three albums whet your appetite and leave you wanting more, the next trio of albums to dig into are Eldorado, Discovery, and Time. Eldorado and Time play as loose concept albums, with Time feeling very much of its, um, time, with the early-’80s production and emphasis on keyboards and weird vocal and guitar effects, but it has some great songs including “Twilight,” “The Way Life’s Meant to Be,” “Rain is Falling,” and “Hold on Tight.” Eldorado is lighter on great songs, but the whole thing holds together and flows very well, taking the concept of the Rock Opera and going whole hog with an overture, reprise, and everything. Discovery is the least of these three, honestly, though it does feature the smash hit “Don’t Bring Me Down.” It’s honestly not that great, lacking the strong songwriting and clever hooks of peak-ELO.

From there, I’d suggest the two most recent ELO albums, Zoom and Alone in the Universe. Both feel like classic ELO, though they’re mostly just Jeff Lynne doing everything himself (except for the strings and a couple of slide guitar parts on Zoom provided by George Harrison). There’s nothing particularly memorable about Alone in the Universe; it’s good, and sounds great, but it’s pretty forgettable.

ELO live.jpgAfter that, I guess you can pick up their first three albums, No Answer, Electric Light Orchestra II, and On the Third Day, and their mid-’80s work, Secret Messages and Balance of Power, but none of them are particularly essential. No Answer doesn’t even sound like the same band; there’s a lot more emphasis on the strings, and it’s definitely less poppy. I chalk that up to the fact that Lynne wasn’t in charge of the band quite yet (Roy Wood was the driving force initially, but he left after the first album and Lynne took over). Electric Light Orchestra II features ELO’s version of “Roll Over Beethoven,” which is pretty much perfect. On the Third Day starts to sound more like the ELO we know and love; songs like “Showdown,” “Daybreaker,” and “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle” are classics, and their cover of the classical tune “In the Halls of the Mountain King” to close out the album is brilliant.

When the band went on hiatus in the mid-’80s, Lynne focused on producing, and helped produce some of the best albums of the era. He did Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever and Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Into the Great Wide Open. He also produced George Harrison’s ’80s comeback Cloud 9, and Roy Orbison’s final studio album, Mystery Girl. He was also one of the Traveling Wilburys, the supergroup to end all supergroups. Suffice to say, the dude stayed pretty damn busy in the late ’80s.

All in all, you really can’t go wrong with ELO. If you’re intimidated by all the albums, the two-disc Strange Magic compilation is a pretty solid introduction to the band’s work, giving you the decent songs from the crappy albums and the greatest hits from the really good albums. There are other compilations out there, too, but that’s the one I recommend the most.