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Some Magnificent Pop, Some Wearisome Tweeness
on 7 February 2014
ELO were, beyond any shadow of doubt, one of THE great pop groups, from the days when you could form a band that actually played instruments and sang their own vocals in the studio (X-Factor kids, a 'band' isn't just a vocal combo) and have hit singles that weren't rock music. Notice how the kind of acts who were on the RAK label ceased to exist by the eighties? ELO, of course, were better than them all...
But why is it still uncool to like ELO? Because they lack 'credibility'? Well, only rock bands need credibility and when they were a quasi-progressive outfit (I'm thinking of the period up to - and maybe including - 'Face the Music') they arguably were a rock band (i.e. subjective and individualistic rather than universal in their song approach, which is what pop needs to be pop as opposed to rock). They had some credibility then, but to my way of thinking, were hampered by their Beatles obsession. I'm not going to deny the Beatles' significance in the world of popular music, but only accord them respect for historic and commercial reasons - for me, they're not personally important, as I never liked the sound of their voices and felt they weren't as good as interpreting avant-garde ideas into rock music in the way that say The Byrds or The Velvet Underground or David Bowie were). This obsession tended to hold ELO back in my opinion and although in their pop period, it yielded such huge hits as 'Mr Blue Sky' and 'The Diary of Horace Wimp', it also allowed a massive element of the twee into their work. I find these ditties unlistenable - 'Mr Blue Sky' is clever in its composition and arrangement, but it's painfully quirky-yet-sensible in the manner of a dreadful Christmas sweater with cheesy motifs weaved in ('Wimp', of course, is much, much worse'). How embarrassing! No wonder ELO are uncool...and I won't even mention the triteness of 'Wild West Hero'. Not even yellow vinyl could save that one...
Then there's the disco influence: 'Shine a Little Love' is the sort of guff I expect from a lightweight British funk group or the Bee Gees, whose falsetto warbling is even sillier than Lynne and Grocutt in their scariest moments. This, of course, was a dark moment in pop music, as by this time even Abba had abandoned their Glitter-Pop/Rock 'N' Roll/beat Folk roots and turned into a cheesy show tune music box, turning out drivel like 'The Album' (not even saved by 'Eagle'), 'Does Your Mother Know' and the one that sounds like a Mexican dog.
I don't mean to be unkind, as I really love a lot of the songs on this compilation. 'Evil Woman' is possibly my favourite early ELO single (we've ALL been out with one of them at one point, right chaps?), 'Turn To Stone' is just marvellous (I still haven't got over it being a minor hit compared to 'Mr Blue Sky' - I think it peaked 12 places lower than the Beatlesy number - nor have I recovered from the fact it was never issued on coloured vinyl like some of the singles before and after it). 'Sweet Talkin Woman' is great too - I bought it on 7 and 12 inch (both on purple wax) and gave the former to my classmate Kerris, who I was enamoured of but failed to get off with (where is she now, I ask myself?) and 'Don't Bring Me Down' is a great one to bop along with, despite the infuriatingly stupid 'groooss' refrain that all but ruins it...even the drums/synth breakdown can't quite erase that bit of poor judgement on Jeff's part. 'Telephone Line', with its doo-wop phrasings is one of the great sad pop picks of all time, while 'Rockaria!' really does entrance, especially when Lynne delivers that 'really gonna rock tonight' line (though the botched intro by the classical singer he left in is another example of creeping silliness). It's not that I don't have a sense of humour - I mean, I can even put up with Jeff's bubble perm and I have a beard myself -but whenever ELO come close to achieving rock sublimity, they leave in something stupid that makes the sophisticated listener sigh and raise brows heavenward in despair...
What else can I say? Most - if not all - of the smash hits are here, making this album one every house should own : 'Livin Thing', 'Showdown', 'Confusion', 'Strange Magic' and the marvellously infectious 'All Over the World' (a song I never liked at the time as it was so vague and universal, now I love it) are all delights, though they are offset by rubbish like 'Horace Wimp' and 'Xanadu'. Overall, though, there are more great songs here than duffers, though I'm undecided about Lynne's late rockabilly fixation - 'Hold On Tight' is OK, but 'Rock and Roll is King' doesn't live up to its title.
Special mention for 'Alright', a number I didn't know, which is excellent, a great laid back bluesy thing I wasn't expecting (I'm not a huge blues fan, finding much of it boring save john Lee Hooker, so don't think I'm hung up on the genre like a lot of rock purists)- Lynne's voice is much more mature and interesting on this song than most of the others. I've also reviewed 'Mr Blue Sky: The Very Best Of..' here on Amazon also, in which I go into detail about how my basic issue with ELO a lot of the time was the overly-high vocals and how I prefer Jeff's voice on his solo re-recorded versions, but I wouldn't be without this fine compilation despite way too much quavering, breathy falsetto creeping its unwelcome way into otherwise brilliant numbers.
So, having explained why and where I personally find ELO twee to the point of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, I will admit that since I bought this CD and Lynne's solo 'Mr Blue Sky' at the start of this week (it's now the weekend), I have played them both almost CONSTANTLY. And I've bought 'A New World Record' on CD, which I hadn't heard all the way through for at least 32 years. And I dug out my 'Out of the Blue' (though it does still sprawl pointlessly much of the time, even though it has one of the greatest album covers ever). And I bought the Lynne solo versions on vinyl. And I'm thinking of buying a lot more of the back catalogue...yep, ELO will never be cool because of their incipient tweeness, but Lynne can write great melodies and produce like a demon.
ELO : love them or hate them, you can't ignore or deny them. I tried!