Jeff Lynne's ELO, "Alone in the Universe" (Columbia)
Lynne's resurrected ELO shares plenty of similarities with the U.K. band that he led to '70s pop dominance with 19 Top-40 hits. But there is one crucial difference. Back then, nobody did excess quite like the Electric Light Orchestra. In contrast, the first ELO album since 2001 wears its pop-rock pomp lightly.
When Lynne cofounded ELO in the early '70s, the progressive-rock era was dawning, the Beatles had just broken up, and anything seemed possible. Combining rock and classical music? Why not? ELO went for it in a big way, crafting elaborate melodies layered with instruments — not just keyboards that sounded like orchestras, but full-on string and brass sections.
In the '80s and '90s, Lynne focused on producing, working on albums by Tom Petty, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Roy Orbison. He also joined Petty, Harrison, Orbison and Bob Dylan in the bestselling supergroup the Traveling Wilburys.
Much of it was technically impressive but emotionally anonymous — Lynne rarely revealed much of himself through his work. His songs were self-effacing to a fault, grasping for universal themes wrapped in sumptuous three- and four-minute packages of melody. But there's a wistfulness to "Alone in the Universe" that works well with his expertly sculpted chord progressions. "When I Was a Boy" underlines that music was Lynne's lifeline while growing up in Birmingham, England. He was born to live in recording studios, with a need to conjure melodies as transformative as the ones that poured from his radio.
The one-man orchestra touches on gospel ("Love and Rain"), disco ("One Step at a Time") and the operatic ballads of his late friend Orbison ("I'm Leaving You"). His guitar playing isn't showy, but masterfully subtle: the contrast between chunky rhythm and lighter, more elegant phrasing on "Love and Rain"; the brief but elegiac solo in the title track; the call-and-response between the singer's vocal and guitar in the chorus of "One Step at a Time."
ELO was loved and reviled for the ear candy it routinely dished out in its heyday, and Lynne retains his talent for assembling little sonic forgot-me-nots. But he pulls back on the extravagance to create something a touch more personal and concise: 10 songs in under 40 minutes. This is high-end craft from a 67-year-old studio pro with a charming tinge of melancholy in his voice.
Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune
U.S. Girls, "Half Free" (4 AD )
U.S. Girls is the one-woman project of Toronto songwriter Meg Remy. When she was recording for the Siltbreeze label in the mid-'00s, Remy specialized in dense, sculpted walls of noise. U.S. Girls shows consisted mainly of her unleashing a fury by twisting knobs and pushing foot pedals. "Half Free," however, is something else, and Remy opens up her sound to more accessible rock sounds while confronting the pop patriarchy with artful zeal. "Sed Knife" kicks particularly hard; "Red Comes in Many Shades" is suitably creepy guitar-noir.
Remy writes effectively in character on first-person narratives like "Damn That Valley," inspired by a Sebastian Junger book of combat journalism, and "Woman's Work," a Springsteenian tale in which she gives voice to a woman addicted to plastic surgery. Dub reggae and girl-group pop influences course through "Half Free," but Remy's sound is wholly her own.
Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer