Face The Music
REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/11/2006
The main problem with the Electric Light Orchestra is that there is little beneath the theater.
Jeff Lynne is a master of production, one of those geeks who is fascinated with sound. He's akin to Alan Parsons in this regard in that both were born to be producers but wanted to write songs as well. In ELO's case, this resulted in several knockout hit singles but not one truly great album.
This is because Lynne shines through on the singles, in one of those rare cases where what you heard on the radio was actually the best the band had to offer. Where Lynne and his band come up short is memorable hooks, but because the songs are usually dressed up in layers of sound, overdubbing and strings it's pleasant fun, fluff for the ears of audiophiles.
Late-period Beatles serve as the main inspiration for the music here, although little of it is heard on the opening "Fire On High." The title alone gives the impression of grandeur and the track follows suit, with an appropriately creepy intro that gives way into a strident orchestra, a bombastic rock piece and then the famous acoustic guitar segment. I believe this part was used back in the '80s for CBS sports shows -- needless to say, it's unlike any other ELO track and is worth hearing.The rest of Face The Music is, unfortunately, standard ELO. On several of the tracks, Lynne tries almost too hard to sound like George Harrison backed with a syrupy orchestra. It's not that Lynne can't write a good hook; it's that he can't write more than two of them for an album, which is why all the ELO you need is a hits collection and maybe A
Predictably, aside from "Fire On High," the standout is "Evil Woman," which is led by a boogie piano and a rather straightforward lyric. It deserved to be a hit, as did "Poker," a buried album track that is one of the band's hardest rockers and their most overlooked. A disc full of tracks like these would have been great, but sadly Lynne goes for pomp and grandiosity most of the time, as on the overblown and annoying "Strange Magic," which could have been pretty but is ruined by the Bee Gees-esque vocals and the intrusive orchestra. Likewise, "Waterfall" and "One Summer Dream" are pleasant but sound as if you've heard them before.
"Nightrider" manages to synthesize the orchestra into a rock vibe, but Lynne's scattershot and muddled vocals obscure the musical merits, while "Down Home Town" is a bizarre mix of pop, bluegrass and classical music that doesn't work nearly as well as "Fire On High," namely because taking a country song and just adding strings and Lynne's rather thin voice is not the way to go (though the yodeling at the end is interesting).
It's tough to recommend a disc with only three good songs, but this is among ELO's better releases, as good a place as any to start if you want to see what the band was about beyond the hits.
NOTE: The bonus reissue of this disc in 2006 features as bonus tracks a longer, creepier and more discordant introduction to "Fire On High" that will have you looking over your shoulder; a longer version of "Evil Woman" with no orchestra; the single edit of "Strange Magic"; and an instrumental remix of "Waterfall." None of these are necessary except to hardcore fans, nor do they improve on the original album, though it is interesting to hear what "Evil Woman" sounds like as a normal song. Maybe if the rest of the album sounded like this instead of drowning in strings and overdubs, it would have been better.