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ELO's Jeff Lynne returns to the spotlight

Other than perhaps wearing his trademark sunglasses, Jeff Lynne of the British band Electric Light Orchestra is not exactly a recognizable or charismatic figure compared to other rock stars of his era from the '70s and '80s. In its entry about the group, the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll once wrote: "The Electric Light Orchestra has a history of facelessness. Even the most ardent fans generally can't name more than one or two band members."

But the music of ELO is definitely nothing short of anonymous. From the early '70s to the mid 80s,' the group blended Beatles- influenced rock and roll with strings (at least for most of its career), resulting in such hit songs as "Can't Get It Out of My Head," "Telephone Line," "Evil Woman," "Don't Bring Me Down," and "Hold On Tight." After the group went on hiatus, Lynne went on to even bigger fame in the late '80s and '90s as a member of the Traveling Wilburys, the supergroup that also consisted of George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty; and as a producer for the aforementioned Harrison, Orbison, Petty, and most recently Regina Spektor. Along the way, ELO's music has maintained its popularity in commercials and in the film "Boogie Nights."

This past Tuesday, the ELO founder returned with two brand-new albums: "Long Wave," his first solo recording under his name in over 20 years; and "Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra." Both releases come as ELO marks the 40th anniversary of its debut record, "Electric Light Orchestra" (or known as "No Answer" in the United States).

Anyone familiar with Jeff Lynne knows how much he loves to be involved in every aspect of the music--from writing and producing his own material, to singing and playing all the instruments himself. So it may come as a surprise that "Long Wave" is a collection of cover songs from the '50s and '60s. It is probably the most tender of music Lynne has ever released, from his renditions of ballads as "At Last" (made famous by Etta James), "She," "If Loved You," and "Love is Many Splendored Thing"; to rockers in "Let It Rock" and "Beyond the Sea" (immortalized by Bobby Darrin).

According to a press release, "Long Wave" is a look back at the songs that Lynne had listened to in his youth long before forming ELO. "I call this new album "Long Wave" because all of the songs I sing on it are the ones heard on long wave radio when I was a kid growing up in Birmingham, England," Lynne said. "My dad also had the radio on all the time, so some of these songs have been stuck in my head for 50 years. You can only imagine how great it felt to finally get them out of my head after all these years."

"Long Wave" is not the only new music coming from Lynne. "Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra" is an album of 11 re-recorded greatest hits with Lynne performing all the instruments himself. Essentially, they're near-letter perfect versions of the original ELO songs with some slight variations and quirks here and there -- "Do Ya" for example, sounds more aggressive than its predecessor, as does "Don't Bring Me Down," The only exception on the record is the excellent new song, "Point of No Return," which hopefully is a sign that Lynne will be releasing more original material by either himself or under the ELO name.

"When I listen to the old versions they don't sound the way I thought they did when I first wrote and recorded them," he said in the press release. "I wanted to use the experience I've gained producing records ever since and have a completely new try at them."

The release of the two new albums is proof that, at 64 years old, Jeff Lynne hasn't lost his skill in crafting melodic rock and roll.