Electric Light Orchestra – Zoom (2001; 2013 reissue)

This is a project the Electric Light Orchestra should have put out at the turn of the 1980s, a lean, tune-focused affair which dials back the “I Am The Walrus”-era Beatles obsessions — even while retaining all of Jeff Lynne’s trademark hooky songcraft.

Of course, two decades later — following the defection of every former Electric Light Orchestra member except for keyboardist Richard Tandy — there wasn’t exactly a huge demand for what this underrated album had to offer. Even the appearances of both George Harrison and Ringo Starr couldn’t stoke up much interest. Zoom, the first album issued under the ELO banner in 15 years, disappeared so quickly that a planned tour was eventually scrapped.

The group would remain dormant, in fact, until 2012 when Lynne decided to painstakingly re-record a solo set of its most familiar hits for a new best-of collection. That’s led to a subsequent series of reissues, also from Frontiers Records, none perhaps more unjustifiably overlooked than Zoom, which is due on April 19, 2013 in Europe and then on April 23 in the U.S.

Zoom will never be confused, of course, with their quirky, deeply engaging 1971 debut No Answer, but it’s not slowed by the sometimes overly ornate pop structures of 1977′s Out of the Blue, either. Instead, the album zips along through a series of smartly constructed tracks which recall everything that made ELO part of the musical fabric of the 1970s, but with precious little of what eventually turned it into a caricature of the decade’s pretensions.

Of course, Lynne’s Beatles fetish was widely understood long before he ended up working with the group as a producer through the 1990s — helming albums for Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison and (through the magic of their so-called “Three-tles” recordings with old demos) even John Lennon. But the presence of both Harrison (on “All She Wanted” and “A Long Time Gone”) and Starr (“Easy Money” and “Moment in Paradise”) here, rather than sounding like a name-dropping bid for attention, actually gives Zoom more of a throwback connection to ELO’s classic sound than the original group could manage by the time it limped to an unhappy end with 1986′s synth-heavy Balance of Power.

If there’s a quibble, it’s one that continues through to his recent solo passes at ELO material: Lynne again plays the bulk of the instruments, meaning there is precious little real musical interaction. (Guys like drummer Bev Bevan, violinist Mik Kaminski and the late bassist and backing vocalist Kelly Groucutt are sorely missed; heck, even Tandy only appears on the opening cut). Endless overdubs can’t mimic the ragged glory that true interaction provides, and Zoom occasionally could have used a bit less manicured perfection.

Still, for those looking for something to connect the dots back to the muscular crunch of “Do Ya” (head straight to the stamping “State of Mind”), the melancholic arc of “Telephone Line” (there’s a simply beautiful ache to “Just for Love”), or the anthematic groove of “Turn to Stone” (on the soaringly gorgeous “Lonesome Lullaby”), Zoom is perhaps the best ELO album you’ve never heard.

    

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.