Thursday, 25 February 2016

Out Of The Blue - Electric Light Orchestra - album review

In the corridors of music history, there is a curious tendency for a consensus to emerge about what is a particular artist's best album, when that artist has produced other work which is far more deserving of that accolade. I put this down in part to lazy "scholarship", and the herd mentality which guides these matters.

I am inclined to think that Electric Light Orchestra's Out Of The Blue does not quite, in the cold light of day, live up to the uncontested glow which has surrounded it since its 1977 release. It does contain some entertaining and enjoyable tunes, and it is overflowing with the craftsmanship for which Jeff Lynne is rightly famous. The Beatles leanings are still clearly evident, with increasing echoes of Roy Orbison in some of the ballads.

The quality of the songs and the level of inspiration are uneven though, even allowing for the quota of filler material which turns up on most double LPs. The production and sound are steadily growing distant from the more earthy and organic character of the group's earlier works, and too many of the tracks are bathed in a certain clinical sheen, which unnecessarily obscures and stifles potential nuances.

Notwithstanding my criticisms, what is good on Out Of The Blue is very good indeed. The curtain-raiser, "Turn To Stone", does not fall victim to the excessive lushness which is evident elsewhere. There is abundant melodic invention and energy here, the latter largely stemming from the bass-synth which propels the piece along, and the "detached" feel of the vocal.  The song has its own persona and dynamism.

A song which has a similarly infectious charm is "Sweet Talkin' Woman", with some pleasingly intricate vocal arrangements, and the song manages to maintain its bite and momentum, a tribute to Lynne's innate pop sensibility.  These qualities are also on display on "Across The Border", one of those interesting and quirky "minor" tracks which pop up throughout ELO's canon.

Many of the tracks betray a genuine effort to convey atmosphere, story and mood - "cinematic" thinking, one might even say.  "Night In The City" is a case in point, although on reflection the song somehow loses its impetus, and never quite lives up to its impressive and evocative opening stages.

The weaker material is largely concentrated in the "middle" of Out Of The Blue, and this may be one of the reasons why it appears better and more consistently strong than it really is.  "Believe Me Now" is a likeable if throwaway vignette.  The "Concerto for A Rainy Day" (side three of the vinyl LP) was a clever idea, but does not really work for me, with the glaring exception of "Mr Blue Sky".

"Mr Blue Sky" has over the years gradually become Electric Light Orchestra's signature tune, and I discern that it is a distant relative of The Beatles' "A Day In The Life", although it is philosophically much less profound or ambitious. It is the song's innocence and kaleidoscopic zest which I find irresistible, rather than its musical complexity.

The double-album format permits the odd bit of experimentation, such as the instrumental "The Whale", as well as excursions like the endearing paean to the band's home town, "Birmingham Blues".

The album's concluding track, "Wild West Hero", harks back to the Eldorado days in its outlook, and is one of the group's forgotten gems, possibly because it is deemed to be less "radio friendly" than some of their other hits. The production becomes excessive towards the end, and this negates some of the melodic charm, although the bombast may have been intended to sign the album off with a grandiose flourish.

So, there we have it. A collection of melodic, lovingly crafted pop/rock songs, and some vague sense of cohesion,  but the sound is becoming overly formulaic even in 1977.  Out Of The Blue is definitely worth checking out, but for a more satisfying and authentic take on Electric Light Orchestra, seek out On The Third Day, Eldorado or A New World Record, or indeed any of their earlier releases.

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