November 2023 Rock/Pop Record Reviews

ABC: The Lexicon of Love
Neutron Records/Universal NTRS401 (LP). 1982/2023. Trevor Horn, prod.; Gary Langan, Miles Showell, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

The mix of early Motown, a pinch of Chic's guitar, dance synths, and lush orchestration made The Lexicon of Love a firecracker of an album in 1982. ABC was not simply another New Romantic band espousing conspicuous consumption on sun-kissed yachts. Their music reveled in pop, it was filled with puns, and yes it was fun, but it was also eloquent. Their sense of irony, perhaps epitomized by Martin Fry's gold lamé suit and a quiff copied from Billy Fury, appealed to both hip and High Street alike.

To celebrate its 40th anniversary a few months late, Lexicon has been given the Abbey Road Studio half-speed master treatment, with Trevor Horn's production, Anne Dudley's arrangements, and Gary Langan's engineering. Improving on the original's sound was ambitious: this record always sounded good. After the success of "Video Killed the Radio Star," Horn could afford to splash the cash on production, and he did. His investment included a new, cutting-edge bit of kit, the Fairlight CMI synth given to J.J. Jeczalik to play with, and one of the first Solid State Logic 4000E consoles, which was used to mix the sound.

Showell's remastering succeeds in further elevating the sonic experience. Certainly, Martin Fry's higher notes benefit, especially on numbers such as "Tears Are Not Enough." Orthopedic surgeons should be on standby for "4ever 2gether," because when he sings "two's a party, three's a crowd/I'm surprised what gets allowed," shivers run up the spine. Another beneficiary of the new production is Jeczalik's synth. On the vinyl originals and subsequent CDs, the lyrics and orchestration dominate; the synth was perhaps overshadowed. Here it is brought forward to share the limelight. The Lexicon of Love already had the polish, but like a pair of Oxford shoes worn for an important date, a mirror shine is always desirable, and here, it gleams.—Phil Brett

Buddy & Julie Miller: In The Throes
New West 6552 (LP). 2023. Buddy Miller, prod.; Buddy Miller, Mike Poole, engs.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

Americana power couple Buddy and Julie Miller make an intriguing team. They've been together since the 1970s. The combination of Julie's songwriting, Buddy's guitarwork, and their two singing voices has helped them build an impressive body of work, together and solo. Armed with a batch of the best songs Julie has written in some time, they've fashioned their most heartfelt and tuneful collection so far.

If there's a bold headline here, it's "Don't Make Her Cry," a slow, sinuous co-write between Miller, Regina McCrary, and Bob Dylan. Julie's little-girl voice has acquired a rasp after years of health issues; that quality adds emotional weight to her lead vocal on the opener, "You're My Thrill."

Recorded by Buddy in their home studio, and mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound, this album is a classic example of a musician who's learned to be a first-class engineer. Buddy's guitarwork texturizes the instrumental backgrounds; he even adds a sitar-like tone to the raucous, slow gallop of "The Painkillers Ain't Workin'." While voices are the focus of the mix, the spread of instruments is natural and effective. Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, Gurf Morlix, and Emmylou Harris add backing vocals on certain tracks.

The centerpiece, appropriately enough, is their duet on "I Love You," where their voices, always an intriguing combination, entwine on outstanding examples of Julie's wordcraft: "It's on too strong to unglue/It's on too tight to unscrew/It can't be broken into/I love you." Another majestic duet, "The Last Bridge You Will Cross," bends topical as a tribute to the late John Lewis, centering on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and wishing him peace: "Well done good and faithful servant/Rest now from your righteous cause/You are free now, come to me now/On the last bridge you will cross." The Millers are that rare husband-and-wife duo capable of great art together.—Robert Baird

Juliana Hatfield Sings ELO
American Laundromat Records (auditioned as CD). 2023.
Performance ****
Sonics *****

Juliana Hatfield has always found a way to stand out in what seems like a crowded field. As a member of bands like Blake Babies and Some Girls, she shaped a sound that was always fresh but also in step with what was popular. Five years ago, she switched gears and did something it seemed like maybe too many other artists were already doing: She made a covers album.

She chose Olivia Newton-John. Her take grabbed ears, turned heads, and reminded us to never count Hatfield out. A Police tribute followed; it too was widely celebrated; a review in Under the Radar said, "Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police distills all that's great about Hatfield ... and presents it in the context of an artist reinventing herself, and these songs, for all to see."

Now she arrives with her strongest tribute album yet; it may be one of her strongest records ever.

Juliana Hatfield Sings ELO is a brilliant look at the career of Jeff Lynne, one of rock's most highly regarded writers, producers, and performers and the singular creative force behind ELO. Hatfield picked his music to explore partly because they share an approach. Alone with Garage Band in her bedroom, she tinkered with the sound, arrangements, and harmonies with the same attention to detail Lynne brought into the studio throughout his career. The result is a 10-song collection that is bright, breezy, and lush but firm when firmness is required. The collection spans ELO's career including not just well-known hits like "Telephone Line" and "Don't Bring Me Down" but also "Ordinary Dream" from the much later album Zoom.

Deconstructing the work of an artist like Lynne and reassembling it requires rare confidence and daring. Once again she transforms the music. It loses none of its majesty and little of its depth. Indeed, Hatfield may have just moved the music of Jeff Lynne and ELO into heavy rotation for a new generation of listeners.—Ray Chestowski

Glotz's picture

Glad to see it gets a great treatment!