Zoom is likely the best Electric Light Orchestra album you’ve never heard

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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, when Zoom was released on June 12, 2001 — 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 Jeff Lynne decided to painstakingly re-record a solo set of its most familiar hits for a new best-of collection. That led to a series of reissues, also from Frontiers Records, all of which now serve to put Zoom into perspective.

The album will never be confused, of course, with the Electric Light Orchestra’s 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, Zoom 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, Jeff 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 the Electric Light Orchestra’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 more recent solo passes at ELO material: Jeff 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 anthemic 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

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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  • ASod75

    It is indeed a tremendous listen. Shame it was ignored back when it came out.

  • shinlenox

    Amazing album. Moment in paradise is my favourite song from it.

  • Jon F

    I played Zoom to death when it was released and have occasionally dug it out for a listen since then. I recently put it back in my car and am loving it. I keep thinking I’ll get tired of playing it daily, but I haven’t yet… it is most definitely “underrated”.

  • James Childress

    Great album, thought certainly not Jeff’s best work under the ELO banner. I think the reason for the dismal sales was it was poorly promoted. It’s only because I was a fan of ELO that I was aware of the album being released and I bought it right away. Jeff’s previous release (not under ELO) Armchair Theater did far better in part I think due to his very entertaining CGI music videos getting on MTV/VH1. Perhaps Zoom would have done better back then if it had music videos to go with a couple songs like Armchair Theater. I feel bad for Jeff. Zoom should have done a lot better than it did. He is very talented and would love to see more music from him be released.

    • Preston Frazier

      I agree. Zoom was fun but got not promotion and the US tour never materialized. Rosie Vela’s appearance on the live album was fantastic. Too bad she has fallen on really hard times.