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E.L.O. Is for Lovers! 

Wednesday, Nov 1 2006
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?LAST WEEK, there was a sing-along screening of the 1980 classic musical film Xanadu — which, as you may recall, featured Gene Kelly, Olivia Newton-John, an Andy Gibb look-ahead, the Tubes, and some pretty swell songs by Jeff Lynne and his Electric Light Orchestra. I couldn’t attend the sing-along, but it’s good to know I’m not the only one out there who is actively struggling with a chronic Electric Light Orchestra addiction. But more on that later.

LATELY, YOU AND YOUR FRIENDS have been noticing that almost all new “hip” rock & rollish music sounds like something from an earlier era, some previous band. It’s either grunge revival or shoegazer revival or new-wave revival or folk revival or stoner-rock revival or Enya revival or something worse. You wonder if this is a new thing, or if perhaps this has always been the case.

The answer is a little of both, probably — and neither. All rockers, even the true visionaries, are musical thieves by nature. And if their songs are good, sticky fingers are no problem, at least from my perspective. I don’t mind if Marc Bolan rips off Donovan, or if Brian Wilson rips off Phil Spector, or Green Day rips off everyone. I don’t even mind Lenny Kravitz’s bold-as-larceny approach anymore. (It sucks when snobs dismiss him while praising equally derivative hipster bands. Oftentimes, they’re not really condemning his lack of originality; they’re penalizing him because he doesn’t rip off sufficiently obscure, “cool” bands.)

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The problem I have is when thieving musicians don’t have any decent tunes. If their songs suck, and the theft feels lazy or cynical, like a trick — well, they’re just another such-and-such-rip-off band.

Maybe that’s the main reason why you and your friends have been noticing lately that new rock & roll sounds old: A lot of the songs just aren’t that great!

(I would further argue that originality is dangerously overrated. Yes, Incubus’ Make Yourself is far more original than Rancid’s And Out Come the Wolves — but which album would you rather listen to on Friday night? Emulation can be highly creative. If you worship your heroes hard and deep and intensely enough, and you’re super talented and hard working, you will make something brand-spanking new out of hand-me-down materials.)

WHICH BRINGS US BACK TO E.L.O. No one has borrowed more blatantly — or more skillfully and lovingly — from his heroes than Jeff Lynne. And in his own efforts to reconstruct a Beatles-tinted worldview, he created a new world, or at least A New World Record. In fact, his musical vision is so complete and itself, it has recently become the inspiration for a remarkable tribute band, L.E.O. Basically a supergroup of rock & roll lifers — including guys from Hanson, Chicago, Semisonic, Jellyfish, the Black Crowes, et al. — just went ahead and said: Fuck it! We love Jeff Lynne, and we’re gonna make the best fake Jeff Lynne music anyone’s ever made!

It took me a minute to get used to the idea, partly because the band’s name — L.E.O. — didn’t seem quite imaginative enough, and the title of their brand-new, debut album, Alpacas Orgling, is troubling.

The concept also takes some getting used to: a group of serious musicians creating E.L.O.-inspired original music — not spoofs, and not covers. They’re a tribute band — but not a joke in any sense. I can’t think of another project like that. It’s sort of as if She Wants Revenge had openly presented themselves as a Joy Division tribute. ?And when you look at it that way, L.E.O., an out-and-out rip-off, seems refreshingly authentic.

Plus, the songs are good! “Distracted” — featuring dreamy background vocals by the Hanson brothers — is a bit of “Strange Magic”; “Goodbye Innocence” has some “Telephone Line”–ism to it; they’re both catchy as hell. And while the songs aren’t jokes, they’re also not entirely serious: “Don’t Let It Go” is a tribute to the gray area between late E.L.O. and the Traveling Wilburys (maybe “Hold On Tight”), right down to the 12-string acoustic and “rockabilly” vocals. Singer Bleu (the mastermind behind the project) does his best Jeff-Lynne-imitating-Roy-Orbison. Pretty satisfying fun.

Turns out, the whole thing is Rick Rubin’s fault: According to Bleu (a.k.a. William James McAuley III), Rubin leaked all kinds of detailed info to Dan Wilson (Semisonic) about Jeff Lynne’s famously eccentric studio methods. (I’d love to repeat it here but fear I’d lose ya.) Wilson in turn passed that ?info on to Bleu. A producers’ project was born. And talk about geekin’ out: The album was gradually cobbled together by fellow E.L.O. obsessives/producers — including producers Andy Sturmer (Jellyfish, Puffy Ami Yumi) and John Fields (Mandy Moore, Andrew W.K., et al.). These geeks are scattered around the country, so they used instant messenging a lot. Says Bleu, the whole project was done strictly for pleasure — for kicks, really. “In that sense it’s similar to the Traveling Wilburys.” It was a pure labor of love.

No, he hasn’t yet heard from Lynne. And no, Bleu — a singer-songwriter who recently moved to L.A. from Boston — doesn’t expect to get any respect for this. An E.L.O. fan just can’t get no love. “I’m generally a huge fan of music that is populist — Bryan Adams, Mutt Lange, Jim Steinman — and it is so uncool to be into that!” he says. “You know, because I think Joy Division is a complete scam, [I don’t fit in] with whatever ‘cool’ band is currently ripping off moody ’80s dance pop!” I heard that.

L.E.O. | Alpacas Orgling | Cheap Lullaby

THE ARK IS A GLAM ROCK BAND from Sweden; they have a couple songs on the new Shortbus soundtrack, and they were scheduled to play the Troubadour on Saturday. Their new album, State of the Ark, feels at home alongside the Scissor Sisters and the Darkness, and their single “One of Us Is Gonna Die Young” is delish, as my mom would say.

Singer Ola Salo recently caused a fuss with some cheeky comments during an outdoor concert at the new Swedish Embassy in D.C. (It was something about airplanes and the White House.) Some Republican audience member complained, and it turned into a big damn deal. An article came out in the Washington Post, and it looks like the band have cancelled their U.S. tour. Bummer. I actually interviewed Salo the day before the incident, by phone, but my tape was mysteriously garbled when I played it back. Coincidence? Um, yeah. Totally.

Reach the writer at ksullivan@laweekly.com

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