From the annals of the under appreciated, I give you Jeff Lynne, a man with talent and history enough for a whole league of musicians, yet who now seems inexplicably forgotten by a new generation. His latest studio effort, 2001's Zoom was released as the first ELO studio album in 15 years. An impressive collection of typical guitar-driven Jeff Lynne songs, it sounded more like The Traveling Wilburys than the heavily orchestrated Electric Light Orchestra. While critically lauded, this CD came and went without making much of a blip on the musical radar, and poor response dictated the cancellation of what was to be a big promotional tour.
Why does such a thing happen, particularly when so many deplore the current paucity of strong melodic song craft found on today's popular airwaves? How does this man who has such a powerful and lengthy musical history seem to fall out of favor with the music-buying public? The music of the Beatles continues to prosper among a new generation of listeners, yet the songs of the man John Lennon referred to as "son of Beatles" go virtually ignored.
It is a mystery for the ages, but happily one that shall not come to rest without heated debate. For those of us eager to defend Lynne's legacy against the ignorance of the masses, there is new ammunition afoot. Weighing heavily in favor of the man from Birmingham's musical genius comes this new two-disc, 32-song tribute collection entitled Lynne Me Your Ears. Friends, Romans, countrymen -- this is one fine tribute.
Doug Powell has gathered a host of musicians who profess a love of Lynne's work, and it shows in the covers they present here. Lynne Me Your Ears is an overdue celebration, an apt reminder just how good this music really is, delivered with first-class performances all around.
Lynne as singer/songwriter or producer has a distinctive sound that seems to inspire love or hate without much middle ground. After a surge of rampant popularity, there was a backlash against the type of slick overly produced sound that became his signature style. In fact the sound and the production seem almost inseparable.
From The Idle Race to The Move to ELO to a solo career and The Traveling Wilburys, Jeff Lynne has led a long and traveled musical career (not even including all the musicians he has produced, including the post-Lennon Beatles). In spite of ups and downs, popularity-wise, Lynne's music is a legacy worth preserving. Thankfully, this homage covers most of the bases, one reason why it covers two discs' worth of music.
A brief Lynne history has him joining a Birmingham band in 1966 (age 21) called The Nightriders who lost leader Mike Sheridan and guitarist Roy Wood (and briefly toyed with guitarist Johnny Mann, though Mann's exit allowed for Lynne's entrance). As an earlier Polydor contract expired, the band renamed itself The Idle Race, and soon found Lynne's influence was a dominant force toward a more psychedelic sound. The group put out several singles and while there was nice press coverage and critical kudos, the group never really achieved much commercial success.
When Trevor Burton left The Move in 1968, Roy Wood approached Jeff Lynne to join the group. He refused; instead staying on with The Idle Race and producing a second album that featured more mainstream psychedelic pop, but again proved nothing close to a commercial hit. When Carl Wayne left The Move in 1970, Lynne received a second offer to join. Frustrated by The Idle Race's lack of chart success, Lynne agreed to become part of The Move.
The Move became as well known for their Who-like stage antics and behavior as for music that reflected Beatlesque pop and an odd sense of humor. Even through a flurry of personnel changes, the group managed a steady output of hits, largely because of the creative dominance of Roy Wood. With the addition of Lynne to the lineup, the group became even more interesting. For the first time, Wood had another band member able to contribute songs and creative ideas.
The music became a bit more ambitious, with Lynne's lightness serving to balance out Wood's darker work. The arrangements and instrumentation became more complex and experimental as The Move transformed into primarily a studio band, paving the way for the orchestral artsy rock n'roll that would soon become The Electric Light Orchestra. In fact "Do Ya" (first recorded with The Move) became the transitional song between the two.
Wood proclaimed that ELO would use "I Am The Walrus" as a starting reference point, and certainly the orchestrated sounds substantiated this claim. While Wood soon departed to pursue his own artistic vision with Wizzard, ELO became Lynne's ultimate showcase. The platinum-selling albums and hits make up the largest part of this tribute, understandably.
For the longest time, his lushly orchestrated music was in fashion (reaching the height of its popularity at roughly the same time as the disco craze), and then a backlash developed against the type of overly slick production and/or lightweight lyrical messages that were ELO's meal ticket. By 1986, Lynne felt that ELO had reached an artistic dead end and so he stopped recording. However, he did re-emerge with a solo album years later, 1990's Armchair Theatre that continued the signature production and sound.
Lynne saw another whole revival as an integral part of The Traveling Wilburys, as well as with his production work for others -- among them, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison and Paul McCartney and Randy Newman - and ultimately The Beatles ("Free As A Bird" and "Real Love"). Lynne led a charmed existence of sorts, getting to work with his heroes and enjoying his musical life. While his new studio effort of last year (and accompanying tour) didn't set the world afire, his music retains a warm place in the hearts and minds of many.
So as these many Lynne-fan/musicians set about their tasks, the question with tributes always is this: does an artist try to cover a song note for note - or does one try to present one's own interpretation? This two-disc compilation provides a healthy assortment of both.
Disc One leads off with some fairly faithful coverage -- Bobby Sutliff and Mitch Easter's nice and faithful rendition of the UK hit "10538 Overture" (great cello, Bobby!) and Earl Slick's "Ma-Ma-Ma Belle" (featuring Michael Flatters on vocals).
Things continue to remain faithful to the well-orchestrated past with Jeffrey Foskett's "Telephone Line." Foskett and Walter Clevenger do an impressive job reproducing this song -- no easy studio feat -- in a version that has the talented Foskett doing everything aside from piano and drums.
Studio wunderkind Jason Falkner covers The Move and ELO classic "Do Ya" in a way that, like Ivory soap, is 99 and ¾ percent pure. Jason does manage to throw in just enough little Falkner-isms to make it his own, but really impresses with the way he captures the feel of the original.
Australian Ben Lee makes a nice choice with his home-studio version of the lesser known "Sweet Is The Night" off of Out Of The Blue. Fellow Aussie Michael Carpenter offers up a very faithful cover of the Jeff Lynne solo tune "Every Little Thing." Like Faulkner, Carpenter's performance is a most impressive one-man show.
Yet perhaps the best one-man studio performance here is by project coordinator and major talent Doug Powell. His "Can't Get It Out Of My Head" manages to capture much of the nuance and spirit that is Jeff Lynne.
The Idle Jets' Pat Buchanan really does a more than credible cover of "Rockaria!" (again, no easy feat - and he got plenty of help from Scott Baggett), sounding very much like Lynne himself and covering all the sonic bases from guitars to strings.
Richard Barone's "Showdown" is familiar and yet slightly different (and Barone really puts some passion into his vocals). I admire The Spongetones' Jamie Hoover for having the cajones to cover The Traveling Wilburys' "Handle With Care," a song so popularly known that any cover seems destined to fail. Hoover doesn't re-create it -- instead he manages to do the song as if it were an early Beatles tune (which he does quite well, if you know his work). Purists might cry heresy, but it's a pleasant version regardless.
Mark Helm's emotional vocals really manage to sell this fairly faithful cover of "Strange Magic," while Ross Rice veers further afield from the original with his dance-beat "Evil Woman."
CD Two leads off with a very wonderful "Twilight" from The Shazam (a band named after The Move's album), a song that the band has adopted as their personal road tour theme song. Producer Tony Visconti (who once turned down an offer to play keyboards from Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood) then re-interprets "Mr. Blue Sky" for the new millennium, with Richard Barone speaking his way through the first verse, and a sonically updated rest of the song that features wonderful bass lines. This new version really grows on you in a most positive way. Don't be surprised if you come to favor it over the original.
The Heavy Blinkers deliver a somewhat reserved vocal on the mid-tempo "You Took My Breath Away" (oft sounding more bored than excited). This version sounds like a mid-sixties chanteuse song (a la Petula Clark or Dusty Springfield).
It's not ancient history when The Move's "Message From The Country" is done justice by The Balls Of France (Doug Powell, Jerry Chamberlain and Sharon McCall), but for those unfamiliar with Lynne pre-ELO, you get a real sense of how Lynne knew early on just exactly what he was doing, and how good the music was even then. Further evidence is presented by Ferenzik's cover of "The Minister", also from that same period.
Perhaps the most unusual cover here is The Move's "No Time" by Peter Holsapple (another one-man show). This early gem might take a few listens to get used to, but the effort is well worth it. Going back even earlier is "Morning Sunshine" from The Idle Races days, covered here by Jeremy in a manner that really transforms the song into an ELO-type number, particularly with standout guitar.
"Xanadu" (not a personal favorite -- lots of bad memories trying to escape Olivia Newton-John's version) makes its disco rhythms less perturbing in this new version from Neilson Hubbard and Venus Hum's Annette Strean.
Another lesser-known surprise is Bill Lloyd and Hans Rotenberry's version of the ELO B-Side "When Time Stood Still". This song has a real Lennon melancholy to it, and is haunting in the best of ways.
The rock button gets turned up by SparkleJets*UK and the tandem of Michael Simmons and Susan West with a great "Above The Clouds". Simmons is a long-term Lynne fan, and his love for the music shows here. Walter Clevenger and The Dairy Kings do a straight cover of "Rock And Roll Is King" minus the vocal echoes, and the end result has a pleasant rockabilly feel.
Rick Altizer's "Boy Blue" definitely is one of my personal favorites here. The talented Altizer puts his own upbeat spin on this Eldorado-era song, and while homage is paid, a new classic emerges.
PFR does a laudable job of covering "Livin' Thing," offering up a version that's true and yet different. They tone down the familiar sonic guitars and add in an organ twist that moves the song into a different era. Purists may balk, but the song remains well served.
The incredible fact is that many younger listeners may not be familiar with the originals. Lynne could write some beautiful music -- Sixpence None The Richer's Leigh Nash captures that beauty when covering "On The Run." Perhaps it's something about the female voice that really points out the graceful charm of these songs, as with Fleming and John's cover of the wistful "Eldorado".
Yet Carl Wayne (whose exit from The Move allowed Jeff Lynne into the group) does manage also to capture the beauty with his dramatic impassioned "Steppin' Out." Perhaps the prettiest song here is "One Summer Dream" as done by Prairie Sons And Daughter (Prairie Prince and Diana Managano and Gary Cambra and Mark Rennick).
In the more obscure category (nice that they're mixed in with the hits) is Todd Rundgren's lounge-like cover of "Bluebird Is Dead." Rundgren uses falsetto tones, synthesizer riffs and great percussion to deliver this one -- in a way that does equal tribute to both Lynne's and Rundgren's talents (as writer; as studio whiz).
Roger Klug (another long-time Lynne admirer since the early ELO days) turns in a great guitar-driven cover of "Turn To Stone" that would make Jeff Lynne smile proudly. Swag turns in a fun "Don't Bring Me Down" that features revolving vocal turns.
There are several nice things about this particular collection. For one, you get to hear many of these songs as if for the first time. Lynne often was of the mind that you could never over-produce something - he often tried loading the songs with as much sound and orchestration as possible. As a result, a lot of the stuff got compressed into a sonically busy middle. Now, with greater technology available (as well as many new interpretations), you often get to experience more of the complete song that Lynne wrote - with highs and lows and (dare I say it) even the occasional stripped-down arrangement.
In addition, this also provides a wonderful showcase for the many artists involved - with Powell leading the way. If you're not familiar with any of them and you enjoy their Lynne tribute songs, I strongly urge you to explore further. These are some of the best independent musicians and producers working today - your interest will be well rewarded.
There's soul in the music of Lynne -- and his influence extends in ways that make it hard to measure. While there's no guarantee that each and every favorite Jeff Lynne song is covered here, Doug Powell and the gang at Not Lame have assembled a pretty comprehensive collection, and have put their hearts into their performances. Additionally, ELO fan Rob Caiger writes the liner notes, and notes on each song provide reference to the original version.
Jeff Lynne once said "I'm a songwriter -- and you can be that forever." This tribute and its 32 tracks prove that statement over and over again. When one considers how the public seems blissfully unaware of this wonderful music and how Sony currently is delaying (and possibly abandoning) the promised remastering of the entire ELO catalogue, you owe it to yourself to discover or re-discover its charms through these other artists' performances.
Enjoy this great collection. Let's make Lynne Me Your Ears the start of a groundswell to make Jeff Lynne "in". Sing along and sing loudly -- the talented man with the incredible 'fro deserves your support.