Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

'Welcome to the Human Race': Two Weeks with 'Out of the Blue'

Strong pop melodies often get a bad wrap. If a song is too catchy, too poppy or, heck, sometimes even too 'fun', the 'intelligent'-self-serious half of my musical mind is immediately suspicious. "Why yes, it is catchy...But is it 'real' music?" Then, hopefully, I tell that side of my brain to, "Shut up and enjoy the tunes." Electric Light Orchestra (ELO for short) represents a high-water mark in pop music for me. Their hit singles are a masters course in constructing effective, catchy, well-produced, and memorable songs. And for that reason, I often take them for granted and the rest of the world seems to as well. ELO holds the record for having the most US Top 40 hits (an impressive 27 singles) without ever reaching number 1. Many of their songs are radio standards, soundtracking commercials and movies, and I forget just how really, really good most of these songs are. So I decided to spend a couple of weeks getting to know the band's 1977 double album 'Out of the Blue' and dust these songs off and hopefully give them a fair shake.

Respect the hair.
Formed in 1970 out of the ashes of a few other groups, Electric Light Orchestra, spearheaded by singer and chief songwriter Jeff Lynne, aimed to give rock a more orchestral quality as well as "pick up where The Beatles left off". It took them a couple of tries but by their fourth album, 'Eldorado, A Symphony' in 1974 (featuring their first big hit, Can't Get It Out of My Head), Lynne and the group had struck a balance between solid melodious songwriting and grand orchestral arrangements. By 1977 and 'Out of the Blue', their 7th album, ELO had their formula down to a science and, lucky for us, delivered an expansive album chock-full of wonderful music.

Jeff Lynne is a man of singular vision and he records and produces ELO's music in an equally singular way. Everything is large. Very large. 'Out of the Blue' is absolutely full to bursting with sweeping and swirling strings, gloriously grand and over the top choirs, pulsing synths, playful background harmonies, shimmering guitars, and Lynne's vocals soaring over all of it (i.e. Standin' in the Rain and its excellent breakdown at 1:38). Lynne's cohesive, glossy sound is the first thing that struck me as I listened these past weeks. With so many sounds stacked on one another, you can always hear everything; it doesn't become muddled. Even on the tracks I don't love, there is always something interesting going on sonically and that is a testament to the grand feat of production that Jeff Lynne and company have pulled off. Can you possibly expect anything less with a cover like this?

In an album so jam packed with excellent songs, I'm finding it a little difficult to single out a few standouts.  Turn to Stone gets the album to a rollicking start; wasting no time in getting the party going. One of my absolute favorite ELO songs follows shortly thereafter: the gem that is Sweet Talkin' Woman. There is a lot of good here; an infectious chorus, playful strings, perfect background vocals, and one of my favorite musical moments on the entire record. At the the 3:13 mark most of the instruments drop out and only vocals and the beat remain and, man!, does it just get me every time. And the goods keep coming. Starlight's shimmering vocals and synths, Jungle's awesomely shamble-y nonsense chorus ('Chooka chooka koo la ley.' It's right up there with 'Ob-la-di Ob-la-da'), and Sweet is the Night's heartbreakingly gorgeous refrain prove time and again the ELO are a musical force to be reckoned with. And if all this wasn't enough, we still have Mr. Blue Sky waiting for us. Mr. Blue Sky is in a rare category of song that I never tire of hearing, I never tire of singing along to it, and even though I've heard it a hundred times, I still find new little corners in the production to explore. It's new every time and it's arguably the best song that Electric Light Orchestra ever recorded.

As with the great majority of double albums, there is some chaff amongst the wheat. With seventeen tracks there are bound to be some that just don't live up to the high standards of the songs surrounding them. Thankfully, no real clunkers are present, just a couple of tunes that don't really add anything special to the mix. The first, Across the Border, comes at the end of the first side and after the previously mentioned brilliant, Sweet Talkin' Woman. Though featuring some interesting production and horns, it's just a little too much of a paint-by-numbers rock number for me. The other bump in the road comes near the end of the record on the fourth (and overall weakest) side of the album. Birmingham Blues is another song that just plays it a little too safe for my liking; with a dime-a-dozen blues rock riff during the verses. But both of these songs are still a treat to listen to thanks to Jeff Lynne's production and instrumentation choices; always giving your ear something new to latch onto.

Hair. Hair everywhere.
If you are new to the wonders of Electric Light Orchestra, 'Out of the Blue' represents an excellent starting point, but also an excellent next step if you've worn through your greatest hits compilation. While perhaps too glossy and shiny for some, the wonderful songs found on 'Out of the Blue' are a strong argument for the importance of fun and whimsy in music. Big hair, big melodies, and big production may seem a tad silly or cheesy to some; but it is hard to care when it's all so goldarn fun. Grit and grime and gloom and doom have their places but sometimes the answer is simply singing along to the chorus of Mr. Blue Sky.

The Breakdown:
Stand-Outs: Turn to Stone, Sweet Talkin' Woman, Starlight, Jungle, Summer and Lightning, Mr. Blue Sky, Sweet is the Night
Let-Downs: Across the Border, Birmingham Blues
Rating: 9/10

Up Next: Moving from 1977 to 1986 for the next record selection. The Smiths are a band that I've been familiar with for a long time and even quite familiar with a number of their songs. But I'm confessing to you all now: I've never listened to their most acclaimed record 'The Queen is Dead' front-to-back before. I know. For shame. My musical cred is dropping by the second.  So I'm going to remedy this gross oversight by spending some quality time with Morrissey and Marr for the next two weeks. And as always, please feel free to comment with your thoughts and let me know if you have any record suggestions. See you in a bit!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

AAaaand We're Back!

Hello dear friends.

It has been a bit, hasn't it? I've throughly enjoyed my holiday season and I hope you have enjoyed yours. With the new year starting and now well underway, I thought it high time to get back up on the saddle and reboot 'The Locked Groove'; with a few changes. Instead of an album a week, I'll be spending two weeks with them. This gives me more time to soak up all of their goodness and also allows ample time for other things happening in my life (work, school, etc). I will still be doing posts throughout the week about other music that is striking my fancy or movies or books or games or whatever is distracting me from the album at hand. Take a look at the updated "rules" to the right if you are more interested in further changes.

I'm glad to be back. Glad you are back. Let's get started then. We are going to kick off 2014 with ELO (Electric Light Orchestra for the newbies), a band that I'm quite familiar with as far as their hits are concerned but I've never moved beyond "Best-Of" compilations to an album. Electric Light Orchestra's 1977 double album 'Out of the Blue' seems like a great place to start (even if it doesn't contain their absolutely perfect tune Telephone Line) so I shall begin there. So listen along if you like and I will see you soon with my thoughts on the record. In the meantime, keep listening.


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Small Plane...

So Bill Callahan's album 'Dream River' is a real treat and I'm enjoying it immensely. It's a very quiet, thoughtful, intimate, and beautiful record and I love it more with each listen. Below is a video from one of my favorite tracks thus far, Small Plane. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Let's Make This Precious: A Week with 'Too-Rye-Ay'

Some songs, no matter where I am or what I'm doing, always make me happy. Dexys Midnight Runners' 1982 smash-hit, Come On Eileen is one of those songs. Never ever fails to make me smile. Every time I come across it on the radio, the dial stops and I listen and I am happy. Aside from being a jubilant pop-song, I am also 99% sure that Eileen is the most enjoyable song in the world to sing along to as well. With its playful backing vocals and harmonies as well as complex (for a pop single) song structure, it never gets old. Heck, I even named my first car (just recently deceased) Eileen in the song's honor (also so I could say, "Come on, Eileen," when she was having trouble accelerating over hills). For whatever reason I never ventured beyond this single to explore the rest of what Dexys Midnight Runners had to offer. Maybe because they are labeled as a one-hit wonder here in the States and I assumed that Come On Eileen was the best they had to offer. But as I thought about what my next album should be, it seemed only natural that I should give Dexys and 1982's 'Too-Rye-Ay' a fair shake and discover what I had, hopefully, been missing out on.

Formed in 1978, Dexys Midnight Runners is the brainchild of singer and chief-songwriter, Kevin Rowland. A quick glance at the band lineup over the years, featuring some 40-odd members, further illustrates that this is Rowland's band and his vision. From their visual look, public persona, and musical output, Rowland was at the helm of Dexys. 'Too-Rye-Ay' is the band's second album after their 1980 debut, 'Searching for the Young Soul Rebels', which gave them their first U.K. hit, Geno, but their sophomore release represented a shift in style for the band. Along with changing the visual look (including those iconic denim overalls), 'Too-Rye-Ay' sees them incorporating more celtic music and instrumentation into their blue-eyed soul style, as well as dropping some of the more punk and new-wave elements present on their debut. This new 'Celtic-Soul' style served them very well and gave them another huge hit in the U.K. as well as a No.1 here in the United States.

First and foremost, 'Too-Rye-Ay' is a lot of fun and a great album experience. With high-peak fast paced tracks and low valley slow soul ballads, Rowland & Company really take the listener on a journey through the world of Dexys. I'm a sucker for celtic music so the instrumentation on many of the album's tracks was just a pleasure for me to listen to and adds to its replay-ability. The first side of the record is pretty much flawless, both in songwriting and pacing. The first-half of LP puts on full display the musicianship of the band as well as Kevin Rowland's singing ability. While perhaps not the greatest voice in a classical sense, Rowland has the ability to morph his vocals to best suit the mood of each song and convey emotion like few other singers I've heard. You really feel each and every one of these songs. (Aside: The way he sings also makes it difficult to understand what he's singing half the time, which I suppose could be frustrating, but I found it endearing. And I think it is part of what makes songs like Come On Eileen so much fun to sing along to... because we have no idea what the words are.)  Side 1 almost operates as its own self-contained record with its last track, Old, fading out on a reprise of an earlier (also excellent) song, Let's Make This Precious. It only took me one listen-through of this first side to realize that Dexys had a lot to offer me beyond the joys of Eileen

Aside from Come On Eileen which comes at the very end of the record, 'Too-Rye-Ay' has blessed me with quite a few other Dexys' tracks which I've fallen in love with and can sing at the top of my lungs along with. The album opener, The Celtic Soul Brothers starts off the record with a bang and contains a lot of the same, great qualities that make Eileen such a great tune. The band's cover of Van Morrison's song, Jackie Wilson Said, is another highlight for me with it's perfectly saccharine lyrics ("I'm in heaven when you smile") and bouncy brass instrumentation. Old illustrates that the band is also perfectly capable of slowing things down and offering up soulful ballads that are breathtakingly beautiful and full of emotion. Lyrically, Old is a heartbreaking song about becoming older and our perceptions of elderly people and the ways we quickly tend to write them off. It's sad. It's beautiful. It became one of my fast favorites to listen to on the record this week.

Until I Believe in My Soul represents the only real track that never really gelled with me. Like Come On Eileen and Plan B, it presents complex song structures with multiple melody and time signature changes, but for whatever reason these disparate parts never come together into a glorious whole. With a 7 minute runtime, the track doesn't have enough musical ideas to sustain that length before it feels like it has been carrying on for a bit too long. I don't hate it, but if it were half as long I would like it a lot more. Rowland's vocal stylings are usually spot on but at the beginning of the track his falsetto is so over the top that the only thing I can think of when I listen to it is Justin Hawkins from 'The Darkness' (of I Believe in a Thing Called Love fame), which to be fair is my own bias and not Rowland's fault. Luckily, Eileen comes quickly on its heels and finishes off the record in a grand, rollicking fashion and puts the faults of Until I Believe... out of my mind.

'Too-Rye-Ay' is a real treat. The album is stuffed with little musical goodies just waiting to be unpacked by people like me who never ventured beyond their one big hit. While not a perfect album or 'THE GREATEST ALBUM OF ALL TIME', Dexys sophomore outing is jam-packed full of great tunes, interesting instrumentation, and soulful singing that kept me coming back from more throughout the week. Things don't always have to be THE GREATEST. Sometimes they can just be good and fun and full of little pleasures. Sometimes that is enough.

The Breakdown:
Stand-Outs: Come On Eileen, The Celtic Soul Brothers, Jackie Wilson Said, Old
Let-Downs: Until I Believe in My Soul
Rating: 8/10