The Electric Light Orchestra, over a journey lasting 50 years and counting, have never been contemporaneously cool. Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood formed the band to allow them to fuse their love of pop with their classical training and knowledge. Orchestra was clearly a statement. Wood soon moved on to other things, but Lynne has stayed with the concept ever since. They have never been at the forefront of a trend, and only reluctantly acknowledge following any. During their rebirth in the 2010s, one journalist called them “anti-cool“, from a position of deep love and appreciation.
The music did all the talking, and it was in magnificent voice. Lynne himself liked to hide behind his Aviator glasses, thus providing a role model for Daft Punk hiding behind helmets. As Punk, the art form, was starting in their home country, ELO were touring the United Streets, beguiling live and TV audiences with a lineup including two cellos, a French Horn, and a Mellotron. However, the music was amazing. Classically influenced, prog adjacent, concept album addicted, disco flecked at times but with true song-making craft combined with expert musicianship. Lynne was clearly appreciated as a ‘musician’s musician’, with a remarkable catalogue of collaborations with some of the greatest of them all, but the public was behind the artists. Everyone got there in the end, and today ELO are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Lynne is in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and many artists have sampled their work in acknowledgment of their influence.
Juliana Hatfield is a regular participant in tribute records, although she is sometimes not personally happy with the outcome. Since joining the American Laundromat label she has leaned into the tribute album as an art form in itself, with her well-received Police and Olivia Newton-John albums. She is also cool, by any reasonable measure. Nevertheless, Juliana Hatfield Sings ELO is, by far, her most ambitious effort in that arena. The Police started as a three-piece, easier to mimic with limited resources. Olivia Newton-John (except, of course, when backed by ELO) had a manageable backing band. ELO, not so much.
There is also the size, and nature, of the canon: 15 studio albums over more than 40 years, ranging from bestsellers to “niche” successes. Concept double albums. Disco influenced pop records. When selecting the material Hatfield had many challenges. Some could be dismissed on subject matter (there is a reason why “Evil Woman” is not extensively covered now), the sheer complexity of the sound, or a mixture of both (the pop opera story of a British suburban drone’s love life in the 70s might not resonate). One final level of difficulty: a worldwide pandemic that consigns artists to their studios/bedrooms. How difficult is it to recreate the sound of an orchestra as a three-piece sending files over the ether from confined spaces to create magic? You can transpose the string parts to guitars, or even vocalize them, but can that replicate two cellos? Hatfield has to harmonize with herself on vocals. She describes the whole project as a “labor of love,” and it is easy to sympathize.
What is left when you de-layer complex tunes and concepts and recreate them in small spaces 50 years later? Pure, joyous pop magic.