Electric Light Orchestra - Out Of The Blue - Review
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critics' view

ELO may not immediately seem like an essential part of music history, but there's no denying they're a band well served by the fancy frills that accompany a reissue. For starters, ELO records hearken back to an era where album art meant Awesome Fucking Spaceships, and Out of the Blue has an especially fine one that resembles a cross between a jukebox and the old Simon games. It's a disservice to shrink such a cover down to CD-size packaging, but the reissue compensates by including a build-it-yourself punch-out space needle thingy and pictures of the band's ridiculous spaceship stage-set.

More importantly, ELO records respond well to remastered sound, due to the band's entire aesthetic being based upon Jeff Lynne using approximately 250 tracks of instruments and vocals in every song. Out of the Blue is often thought to be the band's high water mark because, in many ways, it was the culmination of Lynne's ambitious original mission to blend rock'n'roll with orchestral flourishes, his presumptuous effort to "pick up where the Beatles left off." By this, his seventh album, Lynne had developed the idea far beyond the cheesy primordial mashups like his "Roll Over Beethoven" cover (excepting the silly throwback "Birmingham Blues"), and had even reached past the increasingly restrictive borders of 70s rock to embrace treble-heavy elements of the rising disco sound like liberal uses of falsetto, arcade synths, and melodramatic strings.

Prophetic anticipation or dumb luck, Out of the Blue hit the zeitgeist jackpot in 1977, coming out within a month of Saturday Night Fever and reflecting, if not true disco, a perfect crossover gateway-drug to piggyback on the explosion of their fellow rock defectors, the Bee Gees. Though ELO's finest singles may have appeared on the two prior albums (can you argue with "Evil Woman" or "Livin' Thing"?), Out of the Blue has its share of greatest hits regulars sprinkled across its four vinyl sides: "Turn to Stone", "Sweet Talkin' Woman", "Wild West Hero". The side C four-song suite "Concerto for a Rainy Day" (god bless the 70s) even includes the triumphant "Mr. Blue Sky", deservedly exhumed in the past few years by the hipster cognoscenti as a perfectly weird slice of gaudy, over-the-top FM-dial pop.

The deep cuts on Out of the Blue also hold their own alongside the hits, enough so to justify the double-album expanse (though its 70 minutes are routine by today's CD-enabled standards). "Across the Border" finds a way to cram mariachi horns into Lynne's already packed palette, and most of "Concerto for a Rainy Day" is an argument for art-rock excess, from the Boston-esque organ arpeggios of "Standin' in the Rain" to the army-of-Lynne choir that marks the balladic "Summer and Lightning". Lynne's symphonic addiction may be the kind of bloat punk was meant to eradicate, but it's hard not to appreciate his compositional skill, the ability to arrange string parts that do much more than merely play the song's chord progression, instead offering rich melodic counterpoints.

This sharp learning curve makes it difficult for too many indie artists to draw lessons from ELO's successes; even if a songwriter possesses Lynne's orchestral skills, it's a pretty cost-prohibitive embellishment for most small-time acts. But other elements of the ELO sound are ripe for harvest, as shown by the Lynne-esque overdub-crazy vocal methods used on recent records from Of Montreal and Scissor Sisters. Maybe the best lesson from ELO's career is a more general advisory to let your ambition run wild, a topical piece of advice when everyone from My Chemical Romance to the Arcade Fire are currently aiming for stadium-size grandiosity with their own records. Calling in the string section and commissioning the spaceship cover-art may be a big gamble, but Out of the Blue is proof of how good it can sound when the grand approach works— and gets the loving audio quality makeover it deserves.

Rob Mitchum
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Pitchfork is an American online magazine launched in 1995 by Ryan Schreiber, based in Chicago, Illinois, and owned by Condé Nast. Being developed during Schreiber's tenure in a record store at the time, the magazine developed a reputation for its extensive focus on independent music, but has since expanded to a variety of coverage on both indie and popular music. The site generally concentrates on new music, but Pitchfork journalists have also reviewed reissues and box sets. Since 2016, it has published retrospective reviews of classic or otherwise important albums every Sunday. The site has also published "best-of" lists – such as the best albums of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and the best songs of the 1960s – as well as annual features detailing the best albums and tracks of each year since 1999 (and a retrospective Best Albums of 1998 list in 2018).
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