Review: Juliana Hatfield Faces the Music With A Set of E.L.O. Covers

Videos by American Songwriter

Juliana Hatfield
Juliana Hatfield Sings E.L.O.
(American Laundromat Records)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Starting in 2018, singer/songwriter Juliana Hatfield began alternating albums of original material with those dedicated to interpretations of ’70s-’80s artists that have influenced her. Previous releases reimagined tracks from the Olivia Newton-John and The Police catalogs with her understated, breathy, voice and stripped-down, even earthy instrumentation. She returns to tackle the pop and pomp of the Electric Light Orchestra.

Eventually shortened to just E.L.O., the Jeff Lynne-fronted band shifted from a prog-infused, Beatles-inflected outfit, with prominent strings that were a full-time band and touring members (ie: not hired hands), to chart-busting icons whose sumptuous hits dominated radio playlists for a large portion of the ’70s. E.L.O.’s heavily produced, some may say over-produced, output was initially reflective of the times, but became less so as punk took over and Lynne seemed to be a dinosaur.

Nevertheless, his most enduring compositions captured the slick zeitgeist of the times and, at their best, his flowing melodies and layered attention to sonic detail, haven’t become as dated as other chart fodder from those hit-filled years. It’s against that backdrop that Hatfield recreates those meaty hooks that populate E.L.O. grin-inducing fare like “Can’t Get it Out Of My Head,” “Telephone Line,” and the immortal “Strange Magic.”

Hatfield skews her interpretations close to the originals, but with a darker, rootsier sound, due in large part to her playing most of the instruments (except bass and drums) and less punchy vocals. Pre-release notes explain “My task was to try and break all the things down and reconstruct them subtly until they felt like mine.”

She also wisely omits some of E.L.O.’s most (over) played items (no “Mr. Blue Sky,” “Evil Woman,” “Turn to Stone” or “Livin’ Thing”), preferring to explore and dust off deep cuts like “Secret Messages,” “From the End of the World” and 2001s under-heard dreamy gem “Ordinary Dream.” It’s a shrewd, savvy move especially since these generally overlooked songs are often as impressive as those that define the group.

Hatfield’s less glossy approach displays sincerity and appreciation for Lynne’s talents, maintaining his arrangements while keeping the sonics tougher, if far from raw. The one-woman production preserves Lynne’s style yet dials down the theatrics to not quite garage band levels, making it one of the most successful outings in her ongoing covers project series.

Photo by David Doobinin / Courtesy Sideways Media


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