The sound of a band is its brand. Electric Light Orchestra, the pop-rock outfit launched by virtuoso
musician-producer-songwriter Jeff Lynne in the '70s, trafficked in impossibly lush, symphonic tunes overstuffed with dreamy harmonies, weeping strings and
kingly hooks. ELO's brand was so distinctive that during its radio reign, its gleaming, fussy, fiendishly addictive singles — "Mr. Blue Sky," "Evil Woman," "Telephone Line,"
"Don't Bring Me Down" — were instantly recognizable. These were songs that made an entrance.
ELO's sonic and melodic ambition bewitched a subsequent generation of popsters, several of whom can be heard on Alpacas Orgling (Cheap Lullaby Records), a new disc credited to L.E.O., a loose collective spearheaded by a young lion who calls himself Bleu.
The Boston-bred singer-songwriter previously collaborated with Andy Sturmer (of the late, great '90s band Jellyfish) and producer John Fields on his 2003 solo debut, Redhead; that stellar album showed Bleu's capacity for vaulting choruses and his obvious indebtedness to the biggest-sounding pop records ever.
Still, it's startling to hear L.E.O.'s uncanny, reverent mimicry of Lynne's sonic formula: the stacked, campy backup vocals, the glammy call-and-response of strings and guitars, the oddball synthesizers, the Byronic mixture of cooing melancholy and thundering hubris. It's dead on.
Lest he be mistaken for some kind of underachiever, Bleu wrote or co-wrote all but one song, sang on each track (though not always lead), played guitar, keyboards, drums and assorted other instruments, participated in the mixing and, for all I know, grew the coffee that everyone else undoubtedly had to drink to keep up with him. Then again, when you're emulating a control-freak mastermind like Jeff Lynne, you'd better be a champion multitasker.
Alpacas is, in a way, the truest kind of tribute record; instead of well-meaning but pointless cover versions, we get new songs that sound like superb ELO outtakes.
It's startling to hear L.E.O.'s uncanny, reverent mimicry of ELO's sonic formula.It feels like a stylish update of a classic brand. Joined by Sturmer, Fields and such inspired pop geeks as Self's Matt Mahaffey, the brothers Hanson, Mike Viola (ex-Candy Butchers), Scott Simons of the Argument, and Papas Fritas' Tony Goddess, Bleu serves up a ridiculously accurate suite of pseudo-ELO. This includes sumptuous ballads ("Distracted," "Goodbye Innocence"); bouncy rockers ("Ya Had Me Goin'," the stomping "Make Me," which recalls Lynne's pre-ELO band, the Move, and the charming "Don't Let It Go"); and mid-tempo miracles (the elegant "The Ol' College Try," which features singer Paula Kelley dueting with Bleu, and the sparkling "Nothin' Will Ever Change").
Even if you've never had your ears massaged by ELO's plush pomp-rock, L.E.O. will still strike you as a glittery delight; if you're a longtime Lynne fan like me, you'll be positively giddy. Like the tooth-decaying but wonderful recordings that inspired it, Alpacas is just enough too much of a good thing.