We haven’t heard much from celebrated producer and former Electric Light Orchestra auteur Jeff Lynne in years, but he’s back with a vengeance in 2012, simultaneously releasing two new CDs. Thing is, neither one is exactly “new” in every sense of that word; Mr. Blue Sky is a set of new recordings of his ELO classics, while Long Wave finds Lynne covering the standards and early rock’ n’ roll classics of his youth. Yet both offer the pleasures and rewards of listening to a true music craftsman.
Lynne reacquired the name Electric Light Orchestra in 2000, and a year later, released what was essentially a solo album under the ELO moniker, the underrated Zoom. Since that CD’s release, and a subsequent canceled ELO tour, Lynne hasn’t done much with the ELO brand. But reportedly a few years back, he cut a new version of one of the 70s pop giants’ classics, “Mr. Blue Sky” in his home studio just for fun. When that went well, he cut some more, and now has an album’s worth.
That’s the official story, and I totally buy it, but I also think there may be another reason to do these recordings. Many classic rock artists have been re-recording their hits lately—Journey, Kiss, Styx, Squeeze, Def Leppard and Chicago come to mind. These songs are lucrative when used in movies, TV and other media, but the artists typically don’t own their master recordings, which means their record labels can take big licensing fees for the use of the masters. By recording new, sound-alike versions that they will own, they can cut out the middle man when their music is used.
Lynne’s ELO songs certainly have popped up in their share of commercials, films and TV shows, so it makes total sense that he should have his own versions. And, as he’s said in interviews and press statements, they do sound better. Lynne’s done a lot of production work for major artists since he disbanded ELO—three Beatles, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and many more—and his command of the studio is unquestionable. Playing virtually every instrument himself, on Mr. Blue Sky, he lovingly re-creates the ELO sound for 2012, with impressive sonic improvement.
While the audio is an upgrade, the performances are, for the most part, as identical to the original versions as possible. Lynne’s voice hasn’t aged; nor have his instrumental skills—he does an astounding job throughout on guitar, bass, keyboards and drums. And yeah, there is some orchestration and some female vocals as needed, but this is otherwise all him. There are a few spots where he deviates from the original performances—he adds some new vocal inflection on “Turn to Stone”, for example. But mostly this is a spruced-up reboot of the original ELO sound, and why not? The original records were great. Hard to improve on pop perfection.
There are two welcome deviations from the standard ELO greatest hits list this mostly repeats. Lynne does a welcome cover of “10538 Overture”, the first song from the first ELO album (from 1972!), which was an experimental side project from his work with The Move. The new 40th-anniversary version of “10538” is a fierce, feisty remake of one of his best-ever songs that … well, the original record was pretty crappy-sounding. Finishing out the album, “Point of No Return” is a never-before-released Lynne composition that fits comfortably in the ELO catalog.
Long Wave is Lynne’s oldies album, a salute to the songs he heard on Britain’s long wave radio when he was a lad. Another one-man production with Lynne handling all the instruments, Long Wave is a fresher experience than Mr. Blue Sky, as it’s at least made up of tracks he’s never recorded before.
Lynne’s no stranger to this kind of material—he did a nice job covering “Stormy Weather” and “September Song” on his 1990 solo album Armchair Theatre, and he famously produced Orbison, whom he pays tribute to here with a reverent version of “Running Scared.” Long Wave alternates between standards like “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and rockers like Chuck Berry’s “Let It Rock.” Sonically, it’s a perfect companion to Mr. Blue Sky, as it was recorded in the same sessions (spanning the past three years), and while some songs such as “Mercy Mercy” have those unmistakable, chirpy Jeff Lynne backing vocals, this is not ELO-does-the-oldies. Long Wave is more guitar-based, rawer, and smile-inducing from start to finish.
Neither of these albums represent major artistic statements. They’re not intended to. Rather, they’re the sound of Jeff Lynne having fun in the studio, a place he’s an undisputed master—and he’s having fun playing some of the best pop songs ever written, both from his hand and from others. Thankfully, his fun is our fun. While I look forward to his next album of new, original material (reportedly in the works), these career bookends are welcome additions to his catalog. These CDs are a blast.
Click here to preorder Mr. Blue Sky and Long Wave.Buy Mr Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra CD on Amazon
Buy Jeff Lynne Long Wave CD on Amazon