Monday, January 6, 2014

Don't Knock the Rock Mortician

Jeff Lynne has to be one of the most under-appreciated guys in the rock history books.

The founder and creative soul of Electric Light Orchestra, the reviver producer of both Roy Orbison and George Harrison’s ‘80s comebacks, the driving force behind The Traveling Wilburys, and the co-writer and producer of one of the best pop rock albums (Petty’s “Full Moon Fever”) since the birth of Cliff Huxtable, Lynne and his music landscape are frequently the subjects of dismissal.

The knock on Lynne, from many music critics, is that his production style is hyper-clean, all of the character is polished right off. One friend referred to Jeff Lynne as The Rock Mortician, because he drained musicians of their blood and replaced it with embalming fluids and thought his sonic corpses were prettier than living beings. Ouch, right?

I wrote about my love of ELO back in 2008, but in the past month I’ve rekindled my love of the band and, in particular, the man behind the band. I stumbled across “Xanadu” on TV and remembered just how comically awful the movie is. But even in its worst moments, I still love ELO's contributions to that soundtrack. That encounter began a sort of internal debate on Lynne’s value.

So with my eMusic account full and the end of my monthly account fast approaching, I bought two Lynne-centric albums. The first was "Full Moon Fever," an album I never owned and actively tried not liking back when it soared into pop culture history. There I was in 1989 trying to be an angsty teen on the verge of manhood, and "Full Moon Fever" felt like the opposite side of the Replacements river I was sailing at the time.

I also bought “Zoom,” the ELO comeback album from 2001 so obscure that I’d never even heard of it when I originally wrote about them five years ago. (Side note: If you have a comeback album that someone who genuinely likes your music never even heard of, that's a colossal marketing failure. Hell, I knew about Devo's comeback album and didn't like that band a fraction of how much I adore ELO.)

While I’ve been repeatedly disappointed with comeback albums by bands that should have long ago accepted their fate, “Zoom” is the kind that keeps you from totally giving up on the idea. It’s almost everything an ELO fan would want from a comeback, an album that rediscovers some of the ‘70s focus on Beatle-inspired hooks, continues to infuse some of the classic ELO space-agey sounds, and holds onto some of what made Lynne’s production work in that stretch of the ‘80s so commercially potent.

“Zoom” is not the least bit interested in breaking new ground, because that’s not really what most fans want in a comeback album. What most fans want is for the band to remember why people fell in love with them in the first place.

Only one song on the 14-song collection passes the four-minute mark, and most hover between 3-3:30. Likewise, half the songs on “Full Moon Fever” fail to hit three minutes. For the most part, the best pop music is the kind that goes away before you’ve had a chance to get sick of it.

While Lynne might be a bit OCD on cleanliness, at least he prefers to live in a one-bedroom loft rather than a sprawling ranch house mansion, musically speaking. Neat freak in an itty-bitty living space. It's a nice place to visit.


Bob said...

Over time, I have softened my criticisms of Lynne and increased my appreciation for ELO. Concerning Petty, I think Lynne's involvement is a mixed bag. It works on Full Moon Fever; it undermines Into The Great Wide Open. At the end of the day, though, I think you are right. Lynne's got a batch of really good songs and an impressive canon.

Robert Berman said...

Hurrah for short songs! Lynne was nice to invite Petty, Dylan, Harrison, and Orbison to be in his pick-up band. Some musicians build the future, while others polish the past into a keepsake. Lynn does the latter, making the late 50s and early 60s sound the way they would have if studio technology had allowed it at the time.