Electric Light Orchestra ‘Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra' (Frontiers)
“Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra” is not a greatest hits album, and the title represents a clever game of rhetorical hair splitting, because Jeff Lynne, the owner of the name and chief creative force behind the band during its 1970 to 1986 original era, appears to be the “Very Best” of ELO in the title, not the copycat recordings of classics collected here. Lynne, a masterful producer by any measure, reportedly wanted to clean up and sonically burnish “Telephone Line,” “Evil Woman,” “Turn to Stone” and other great songs from that period for posterity, but one suspects that the idea of “improving” on the original recordings had more to do with royalties on recordings. As a side note, “The Very Best” also pushes original drummer Bev Bevan out of the mix, karmic justice for all those years Bevan toured as ELO Part II.
While some reviewers compared Lynne to George Lucas for tinkering with his classics, “The Very Best” is a different sort of animal. Bands such as Styx, Foreigner and Squeeze have recorded similar albums in recent years, often competing with best-of collections of the original versions issued by their old labels. A 2007 New York Times article reported that the chief reason for older bands to release such albums is to avoid splitting revenues from commercial licensing with their former record companies. In the article, Eagles manager Irving Azoff said he was encouraging his legacy clients to follow this strategy. With “The Very Best,” Lynne can sell a virtual sound-alike of “Don't Bring Me Down” for a television commercial and keep more of the money.
Lynne is better at this than most and, frankly, more qualified: While Styx and Foreigner are operating without original vocalists (Foreigner uses Lou Gramm-ish Kelly Hansen on last year's “Feels Like the First Time”; Styx has Lawrence Gowan doing a competent Dennis DeYoung on 2011's “Regeneration” volumes), Lynne is the only guy for this particular job. The problem for longtime fans is that subtleties in the originals have spent 30 to 40 years marinating in their minds, and the differences that are so evident on “The Very Best” — the brighter opening keyboard on “Telephone Line,” the less forceful delivery of “Strange Magic” — will only work with casual or forgiving listeners. The cover of “Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra” is a near facsimile of the art on 2005's “All Over the World: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra,” so point-of-purchase decision making could be clouded by the similarity, but only one of these releases really deserves to be the “The Very Best.”
— George Lang