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Orchestral grandeur, pure pop, and gritty "rawk" collide
on September 14, 2006
HERE IS THE NEWS
Epic/Legacy continues its superb re-mastering/re-release program with the brilliant catalog of The Electric Light Orchestra by releasing 1973's ON THE THIRD DAY. The sonics here are spectacular; the graphics are much-improved; the liner notes by Jeff Lynne and ELO archivist extraordinnaire, Rob Caiger, are interesting; the bonus music is revelatory.
ON THE THIRD DAY is a thrill ride, a gutsy swing for the fences that connects on many levels. On this, ELO's third album, the vision that founders Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne originally had for the fusion of classical strings/arrangements with rock and roll begans to really take shape (though Wood had already departed midway through ELO's second album). The groundwork for the band's masterpiece follow-up album, ELDORADO, is well-laid here, as strings and electronics blend smoothly, rather than being in conflict.
Richard Tandy, ELO's outstanding keyboardist, really comes into his own here. Mik Kaminski's violin work is also stellar. Jeff Lynne's vocals are in fine form, and Bev Bevan's drumming is primal and sublime--all at once. Michael de Albequerque, who was ELO's bassist/backing vocalist from ELO II through ELDORADO, also features prominently, contributing a robust sound.
Overall, the themes of Creation, life, and death are played out, particularly during the first half of the album. This is ELO's most "spiritually seeking" work, and appropriately, one of it's most experimental and progressive musical ventures as well. Here is a look at the songs:
The album opens with the intense drama of the instrumental "Ocean Breakup," which becomes a recurring theme...with skittering strings and droning synths, it is heavy and portentious, heralding the coming of "King of the Universe," a solemn-yet-hopeful hymn that starts as a ballad and builds into a crescendo of crashing drums and blaring symphonic blasts.
"Bluebird Is Dead" is a ringer for a REVOLVER-era Beatles tune; Lynne's voice sometimes bears an uncanny resemblance to John Lennon's. Though it's a ballad, it packs a wallop with it's emotionally intense lyrics, vocals, and violin heroics...not to mention a backward guitar solo that pleasingly blows the mind.
The next track is a commentary on the pointlessness of ennui--a cynical look at jadedness, if you will: "Oh No Not Susan" is performed almost haphazardly as Jeff weezes his way through the sad lyrics. He mocks the song's title character and her attitude, casually spitting out a spontaneous f-bomb (the only recorded instance in the ELO catalog)--meant, presumably, not to be vulgar, but to display "Susan's" apathy and arrogance.
Things pick up dramatically with the poppy, optimistic "New World Rising" which has some very stellar interplay between Tandy's keyboards and the string section. Lyrically, the song is a strong forerunner to ELO's later smash hit, "Mr. Blue Sky," and the arrangement here forecasts that as well. It's much more "proggy" though, with some pretty daring, spectacular playing, which then segues into the instrumental "Ocean Breakup (Reprise)," which brings the opening song cycle to a close.
So far, things are holding together strongly thematically--but, hold the phones, here comes...ELO doing Motown! With "Showdown," ELO steps right into Marvin Gaye territory with a funky, soulful original tune that invaded the pop charts and proved that when Jeff Lynne said "boogie," he wasn't just being facetious. It's a brilliant tune--one of the best ones the band has ever done, with Lynne's vocals strongly recalling "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," while de Albequerque's snaky bass lines, Bevan's rhythmic percussive artistry, and those smoldering strings laying down a hot foundation for a tale of love gone wrong. In the midst of it all, Jeff Lynne plucks an amazing guitar solo that stings and bites and leaves a mark...it's as bluesy and soulful as anything Stevie Ray Vaughn or Eric Clapton or BB King ever played. After hearing this track, John Lennon pronounced ELO the "son of the Beatles."
As great as "Showdown" is, it is somewhat of an anomaly among the rest of the tracks. With "Daybreaker," ELO moves back into the prog-pop arena with one of it's signature instrumental workouts--a thrilling synth/strings duel that is underlaid with some hot guitar and a propulsive chugging rhythm.
Nothing in ELO's earlier catalog would prepare you for the heavy riffage of the next song, "Ma-Ma-Ma Belle," which rattles the jaw and is liable to produce tappage in your toes or stompage in your feet. Lynne's close friend, Marc Bolan (of T Rex), plays uncredited guitar here, as he and Lynne tear through the notes like twin chainsaws--and the ELO string section matches the heaviness with some heavy sawing of it's own. You'd have to go back in Lynne's career to The Move with "Brontosaurus" to find anything quite so raucous, but even that classic tune doesn't swing with the pizazz of this one.
"Dreaming of 4000" is solidly related to the earlier tunes from ON THE THIRD DAY, with it's spiritual theme, visionary lyrics, experimental prog arrangement, and daring, dexterous playing by all parties involved. Violinist Kaminski proves himself a worthy successor to maestro Wilf Gibson with his breathtaking bow work near the end of the song.
And then there was "In the Hall of the Mountain King," a faithful-yet-fresh reworking of Grieg's classical masterpiece. The first time I heard ELO's "In the Hall of the Mountain King," I flipped. I had never heard anything like it before...I don't know that I've ever heard anything like it since. This instrumental epic lumbers like a locomotive, slowly picking up steam before it becomes a frenzy of orchestral fury, highlighted by Kaminski's almost gypsy-like violin theatrics which strongly recall The Who's "Baba O'Reilly" at points. Sonically and in mood, this ranks somewhere between "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Fire On High" in the ELO canon. In short, it never ceases to thrill and amaze.
The early versions of "Ma-Ma-Ma Belle" and "Dreaming of 4000" are interesting to hear, but the main draw is the Lynne/Bolan piece, "Everyone's Born to Die" which combines the soulfulness of "Showdown" with the spirituality of "Dreaming of 4000" in a buzzing, Beatlesque ballad. It's an amazingly gripping song, which would have fit perfectly on the album in its original release, but makes a very, very welcome bonus here. The "Interludes" are a collection of the little bits of musical whimsy that connect many of the songs throughout, giving the album at least a loose thematic cohesion.
As mentioned before, the album graphics are restored to their original vision (goodbye to the Richard Avedon "bellybutton" cover) and the liner notes are highly enjoyable and informative. Special thanks to archivist Rob Caiger, Face the Music webmaster Ken Greenwell, and ELO Communications Queen/super fan Lynn Hoskins for all they did to make this historic and vital project possible.
For sheer drama, ON THE THIRD DAY tops virtually anything ELO has ever produced. It's still a little uneven compared with some of their later work, but ELO was never more spirited than this daring album. Intense, brooding, longing, explosive, and visionary, it holds up extremely well today, more than 30 years later.
If all you know of ELO are the band's radio pop hits, you really need to check out ON THE THIRD DAY to see the soul, the seeking, the groundbreaking artistry and the courage that underlies all that the band has ever done.