Album of the Week, December 28: Odessey and Oracle by the Zombies
December 28, 2014 Leave a comment
The Zombies formed when five lads at two separate schools in St. Albans, England decided to combine their talents. Rod Argent, the principle songwriter, played piano and keyboards and Colin Blunstone handled vocals, with Paul Atkinson on guitar, Hugh Grundy on drums, and Chris White replacing original bassist Paul Arnold and gradually assuming some songwriting duties. The band, named in a hurry to enter a competition, was intended as a schooldays lark. After winning a recording session with Decca, however, they decided to pursue recording in earnest. Their first single was She’s Not There, a minor-key song of lost love driven by Blunstone’s breathily compelling vocals and Argent’s distinctive keyboard work. It hit a respectable #12 in the U.K. and went all the way to #2 in the U.S. (landing nicely behind Bobby Vinton’s Mr. Lonely). Their debut album mixed originals with R&B covers, masking the band’s distinctive baroque pop strengths. As was typical of the day, different follow-ups appeared on either side of the Atlantic, with Leave Me Be stiffing at home and Tell Her No continuing the hit streak in the States [#6, 1965]. After that, however, a long string of singles failed in both markets and a second album was shelved before it was finished. Frustrated the band moved to CBS records, negotiating full control of their next sessions in exchange for a tiny budget.
|Title||Odessey and Oracle|
|Label||CBS||Released||April 19, 1968|
|U.S. Chart||95||U.K. Chart||n/c|
|Tracks [U.S. Hot 100]|
As a result, Odessey and Oracle was an anomaly for its day, an album created almost entirely by the band with very little outside involvement. Argent and White even sacrificed the lion’s share of their songwriting royalties to pay for the stereo mix. The cover was designed by an artist friend who accidentally misspelled “Odyssey.” Colorful and whimsical, it captures the psychedelia that informs — but never overwhelms — the Zombies’ unique musical vision. By this point, the quintet had become a very cohesive musical unit, blending their sounds and talents seamlessly. Argent and White had different but complimentary songwriting styles, and Blunstone’s control of his distinctive voice had turned it into a wonderful instrument.The band rehearsed relentlessly to minimize the need for studio time, then headed to Abbey Road where they laid down 12 brilliant musical gems.
Care of Cell 44 is a bright, breezy love song with a big twist — it’s written to someone in jail. The juxtaposition of the jaunty music and bleak circumstance is magnificent, and Blunstone’s delivery makes it clear that the narrator’s feelings trump whatever caused this misfortune. It’s a perfect welcome to the Zombies’ world. A Rose For Emily shares a title with a dark Faulkner short story but its themes are much closer to Eleanor Rigby. Using the fragrant symbol of love as an emblem for Emily’s sad, lonely life is a nice twist. The spare but lovely piano work and beautiful harmonies make the tribute to this character even more touching.
After those two Argent compositions, Chris White takes a turn in the writer’s seat. Maybe After He’s Gone is a mini-masterpiece, a should-have-been hit that captures the essence of the band. The lyrics tell of a love lost to another, with the narrator hoping against hope that the interloper will leave the scene. Wistful, dark, and lovely, it’s a brilliantly crafted song with one of Blunstone’s finest, aching deliveries. Beechwood Park is a sweet ode to an urban oasis, a little slice of nostalgia and wistful joy. It’s reminiscent of the best work of the Kinks, capturing a distinctly English sense of place and framing it in charming sentiments, all wrapped up in a very Zombies baroque pop package.
Brief Candles is one of White’s finest songs, a magnificent tale of love and regret. It’s told in three verses with slightly different perspectives and features a different Zombie on lead vocals for each verse — Argent, White, then Blunstone. Their voices are just similar enough to make the effect quietly disconcerting, heightening the sad tension in the lyrics. Argent brings in the closer for side one, the very 1968 Hung Up On A Dream. Rather than seeing the psychedelic age as a time of renewal, however, he frames it all as something that could easily pass away. Eerily prescient, it’s a beautiful song with a hopeful core and a wistful realism. That blend of joy, nostalgia, and loss is at the root of the Zombies’ lyrical soul.
Side two opens with a bang, Chris White’s romantic extravaganza Changes. Featuring powerful harmonies from the whole group, it’s a highly textured celebration of a woman for all seasons and a sonic masterpiece that provides the perfect transition from the bittersweet meditations of side one to the more eclectic offerings of the next set of tracks. Rod Argent provides a rare lead vocal on I Want Her She Wants Me, a nice pop love song. His innocent delivery works well, allowing the simpler song to share its charms. This Will Be Our Year is a blast of optimism from Chris White. A cautious but infectious celebration, it puts out hope for the near future while wistfully acknowledging that it took “a long time to come.” Punctuated by a bright horn section, it’s a delightful song that demonstrates the band’s musical diversity.
The World War I saga Butcher’s Tale features Chris White singing his own dark epic. Featuring a creepy harmonium line from Argent and some carefully constructed sound effects, it’s a harrowing story of war that suits the mood of the times while transcending them. White’s harsher vocal is perfect as well, making this a jarring but smart departure. His Friends of Mine, with Blunstone back on lead vocals, is a bit fluffy. A jolly narration of actual friends and acquaintances of the band, it’s a nice celebration of camaraderie and a fine enough track; it simply doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the disc.
The album’s closer, on the other hand, is one of their finest moments. Richly layered and beautifully constructed, Time of the Season shows off the band like nothing else. It showcases Blunstone’s vocal power — a delivery that he and Argent argued over during the sessions — and shows off the quintet’s musical powers brilliantly. It’s a perfect psychedelic love song that holds up far better than most of its contemporaries. Sadly, tensions in the band and lack of support from the label found the Zombies broken up before the album even hit the racks. In the U.S., Al Kooper pushed Columbia hard to promote the album, eventually resulting in Time of the Season going to #3 on the Hot 100 over a year after the band ceased to exist.
It’s somehow fitting that the band’s two finest moments — She’s Not There and Time of the Season — bracket their career. Distinctive, creative, talented, underappreciated, and often ahead of — or at least outside — their time, this short-lived band left an impressive legacy that can be almost fully appreciated in this one 12-song masterpiece.