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Non-Prog CD Reviews

Electric Light Orchestra

Strange Magic: The Best of Electric Light Orchestra

Review by Gary Hill

I’ve always liked ELO a lot and haven’t yet replaced my old vinyl collection. So, I found that a double disc, best of was a great plan for catching up. In all honesty, it is a good place to start, but I find there are two songs I wish had been included. First off, “Fire On High”. That’s a track that got a lot of airplay, so it’s surprising it’s not here. Secondly would be “Mission: A World Record”. That one might not be such an obvious choice, but it’s one of my favorites from the band. No matter how you slice it, though, getting this set is a good way to start an ELO CD collection. It should be noted that I have already reviewed some of these songs when I covered the Out of the Blue disc – so for the sake of consistency I’ve modified those track reviews for inclusion here.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2009  Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.
Track by Track Review
Disc 1
10538 Overture

ELO wears their Beatles influence on their sleeves here. This cut is quite classical in its instrumentation, but very Beatles oriented.

Roll Over Beethoven
Beginning with a full classical delivery of Beethoven, they launch out from there into a fairly straightforward rendition of the Chuck Berry classic made more famous by the Beatles. As one might expect, ELO’s version is closer to the Beatles rendition than the original. That said, they include a killer prog rock meets classical instrumental movement on this tune. It’s quite extended and turns more towards rock and roll meets violin based prog later.
Showdown
This combines a soulful, rather funky texture with some killer classically tinged prog rock. It’s a great piece of music and one that is quite deserving of inclusion here. 
Daybreaker
An instrumental, this is a decidedly progressive rock based piece that’s very cool and very tasty. It works through a number of changes and even gets a little ways towards RIO music at times. I love some of the keyboard voicings on this and in general really like this track a lot.
Ma-Ma-Ma Belle
More in the mode of a hard rocker, this has some proggy elements, but not that many. It’s also a little Beatles inspired, but not nearly so as some of the other music the band did over the years.
Can't Get It out of My Head
This is a balladic track, but it’s also quite strong. I’ve always liked this one a lot. I could see someone saying the arrangement is a bit schmaltzy, but for ELO it really works.
Boy Blue
A considerably progressive rock oriented introduction gives way to a great ELO trademark jam. They include another extended prog section mid-track for great effect.
Evil Woman
A classic hit from the band, this is a good piece of music. It’s catchy and yet still has some meat on its bones. I’ve always liked this a lot and the orchestral instrumentation adds quite a bit to this tune.
Strange Magic
Here’s another that could be argued to go a bit over the top. Frankly, I’d say this song, despite the sometimes overly lush arrangement (or perhaps because of it) works quite well. It’s another personal favorite from the band.
Livin' Thing
This truly is another classic cut from the band. I love the little Spanish sounding vignette at the start and in the middle of the cut. It’s definitely got some Beatles influences, but that’s really just the starting point. This is a wonderful cut with some great changes and alterations.
Do Ya
The guitar riff that opens this is classic and as good as this song is, that makes perfect sense. I’ve always found the lyrics to be a bit silly, but that doesn’t take away from the enjoyment.
Telephone Line
Starting with some unusual keyboard elements and the sound of a telephone ringing, this number is a mellow one that’s also got quite a bit of progressive rock built into it. It’s without question another of the band’s most classic pieces of music. It still holds up very well. We get a reprise of the introduction mid-track.
Rockaria
Operatic vocals open this (and return later) but it’s a very Chuck Berry like number and has always reminded me a lot of “Roll Over Beethoven.” This is good, but not really a standout as far as I’m concerned. It certainly has its following, though, so I won’t argue with its inclusion here.
Disc 2
Turn To Stone
This comes up with an electronic, space age feeling. As it moves into the song proper it’s got a classical music goes electronic pop. They drop it down to a straightforward central song structure. There are hints of disco on this, but not nearly to the point the group would wander later. This is a catchy track that still holds up quite well. It gets quite symphonic and powerful before it ends.
Sweet Talkin' Woman
Here’s another energetic number. This is catchy and fun. It’s got more of a “rock and roll” feeling to it, but still plenty of classical elements can be heard, too. 
Mr. Blue Sky
A bouncy pop rocker, this is a considerably Beatlesesque. It’s fun and quite catchy. The outro on this is more symphonic and includes operatic vocals. This ends with some orchestral music, but it’s also quite a Beatles-like closing segment.  
It's Over
An evocative and powerful piece of music this is very ballad-like, but it’s also got a serious classical motif to it. While perhaps not the most obvious choice for a highlight, this is nonetheless one of my favorites.
Shine A Little Love
Here we get the first of the disco songs. The introduction on this is classic ELO and the chorus has a catchy vocal hook, but all the disco trappings are both an annoyance and really date this piece. It doesn’t hold up nearly as well as some of the other material here. Honestly, ELO’s disco material was a lot stronger than the majority of the genre (and still had quite a bit of rock in it) but this is part of the reason the band had their demise. 
Don't Bring Me Down
This is more of a rocker and a much stronger tune than “Shine A Little Love.” The disco is washed clean here, but I’m not overly crazy about the “rooose” thing. Still, it’s trademark ELO.
Confusion
For the most part I like this song – it’s a classic mellower ELO number, but there’s an annoying little keyboard interlude that just sounds cheesy.
Last Train To London
This song is a study in contrasts. Certainly it’s one of the discofied pieces. The thing is the verse, with its funky sort of driving bass line really works quite well. The chorus, though, is amongst the worst of trite disco sounds. I’d say that the verse makes up for it, but barely.
Hold On Tight
This cut has that old school rock and roll sound like we’ve heard previously from the band on cuts like “Roll Over Beethoven.” It’s a strong cut and still holds up pretty well. It also has a lot of sound that calls to mind another of Jeff Lynne’s bands, The Traveling Wilburys. I like the French that gets thrown into this. 
Twilight
There’s not any disco sound on this, but it does have a more modern element to it. This still feels more like classic ELO, but something’s just a little off. That said, it’s also got some of the most progressive rock music we’ve ever gotten from the band at points along this ride.
Rain Is Falling
This is a mellower sound. There’s no ghosts of disco here and this does feel very much like a classic era ELO song. I’m just not sure it’s exceptionally strong. I would have rather seen this left off and something like “Fire On High” or "Mission (A World Record)" make the cut.
Rock 'N' Roll Is King
As the title suggests, this is ELO tackling another rock and roller, old school style. It’s a good tune and definitely a nod to the older period of the group.
Four Little Diamonds
This has that rock and roll element to it and lots of The Beatles. It’s also another newer cut that does a great job of capturing the classic ELO sound.
Stranger
If there’s a track here that doesn’t seem like ELO, this is it. It’s sort of a pretty standard AOR ballad. Frankly, it’s not bad, but it’s another that I’d rather have seen scrapped in favor of a stronger piece.
Calling America
I like this track a lot. It’s definitely got that classic ELO vibe, but also some of the Traveling Wilburys thing going on.
So Serious
I can’t look at that title now without thinking of the Joker in Dark Knight – “why so serious?” Of course, this song has nothing to do with that and is a bouncy little pop number. It’s good, but not exceptional.
 
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