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Electric Light Orchestra - Zoom Print E-mail
Tuesday, 12 June 2001

Electric Light Orchestra
format: CD
label: Epic Records
release year: 2003
performance: 0
sound 0
reviewed by: Richard Elen

ImageWhat a pity I am so… unfashionable. One of my earliest memories of Los Angeles is that of driving around the West Side in my girlfriend’s old VW Beetle, the air heavy with the scent of Hawaiian Tropic that had leaked in the glove compartment, my newly-installed cassette player blaring out Electric Light Orchestra’s Face The Music. It was 1976. A quarter of a century later, I’m back in LA, still driving around listening to ELO entirely too loud – this time, it’s their latest album, Zoom. Needless to say, I liked ELO then and I like them today.
These days, it isn’t so much "them" as "him": Jeff Lynne. Lynne was one of the co-founders of the band, though all the others have gone. Bev Bevan did some work under the "ELO Part II" name, but Lynne is the man behind this excellent piece of work that is definitely ELO, but also very definitely Jeff Lynne, and perhaps shows more external influences than any other of his albums.

Lynne’s last release was the solo album Armchair Theatre (1990), which mixed his own memorable writing with some very pleasant arrangements of standards such as "September Song." Very nice work – for me, anyway: very likely one reason I like Lynne’s work so much is that I have the same vocal range as he does, so I can happily sing almost anything he’s recorded (I am available for backing vocals, by the way…).

But while Armchair Theatre was very much a Jeff Lynne album, Zoom is, perhaps strangely, very much an ELO album, even though every tune is written by Lynne and the only other person from a former incarnation of the band who appears on this record is Richard Tandy. Lynne can pen a very good tune, and although he may not plumb the depths of lyric content, he does better than most rockers. His lyrics – along with sparse strings on this album – serve to point out some really good melodies here. In addition, Lynne enjoys, as I do, spine-tingling chord progressions and multi-part harmonies. The end result is enthralling.

I’ll bet that when Roy Wood (I think it was him) said of ELO, back in the early days, that "We pick up where 'I Am the Walrus' left off," he immediately wished he hadn’t spoken. But inescapably, some of the songs on this album can at least bear the label "Beatle-esque." The "Across The Universe" style intro to "Just For Love" is an example. Lynne can justifiably claim to co-exist in such company: he’s worked with McCartney, for example, and his name has been associated with that of George Harrison more than once – the Traveling Wilburys, Harrison’s "Cloud Nine" and the production on "Free As A Bird" on the first Anthology spring to mind. And George appears on this album – playing slide guitar on "All She Wanted" - while Ringo plays drums on a couple of tracks, with a style curiously similar to Lynne’s own. At the same time, there is a certain John Lennon-like quality to Lynne’s vocal sound on occasion, though at other moments he sounds more like Bob Dylan (or is it Tom Petty? Check out "Melting in the Sun"). Often, producers have an unwelcome tendency to impose their sound on the artists they produce, when they are really supposed to bring out the artist’s own style as much as possible. Here, Lynne shows he has actually learned things from the people he’s worked with over the last decade or so, and the result is extremely interesting and pleasant.

Lynne has in the past been accused of lack of dynamics in production, but here he has a much lighter hand on the proceedings than in the past – even on straight rockers like "All She Wanted." There is plenty of light and shade here, and lots of approaches learned the hard way – through working with people other than yourself. Lynne is evidently a perfectionist, with his own views on how production should be done, but it’s interesting to note his own musical influences coming through – some of which just weren’t there a decade ago. Sonically, the album is excellent, and I hope someone can prevail upon him to remix for 5.1, as the result would be excellent.

Of course, this is ELO, so there are strings on this album, but not too heavy, and they don’t get in the way. Instead, they highlight and underscore rather than overshadow (contrast with the over-use on Bevan’s last Part II album). Accomplished cellist Suzie Katayama appears on several tracks, while Kris Wilkinson and Marc Mann divide the string arrangements between them.

My favorite track, you ask? All the influences seem to converge for me in "Ordinary Dream," with a very ELO string arrangement (Wilkinson) recorded by Richard Dodd, Lynne’s engineer for some years, and everything else handled by Lynne. The chord progression makes my hair stand on end, the backing has a Walrus-like pattern to it, and the lyrics have some nice touches ("Jigsaw puzzle of a twisted tale/That set its lonely sail/From you to me," for example), while the awesome descending vocal phrase, "It mattered at the start until I realized instead" is Harrison-like in its almost pentatonic intervals. There are some gorgeous multi-part harmonies, especially over the final guitar solo that is about half the length you want it to be, so it ensures you put it on again. Now that’s what I call production.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and work out what the middle line in that final chorus is. And, oh yeah, buy this album!

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