Monday, March 22, 2010

The Zombies- Odessey and Oracle (CBS Records, 1968)

Leaving CPR training this past Friday, I got into my Honda Civic and discovered that my CD player was showing no signs of life. I tried to push play – nothing happened. I tried to push eject – nothing happened. An error code flashed before my eyes. All attempts to revive the faltering machinery were to no avail. My copy of The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle was stuck inside the busted player, seemingly destined to an eternity mired in the purgatory of mechanical malfunction. Never again would I hear the dulcet tones of this copy of a musical masterpiece. I reasoned that this was karmic retribution for the time I intentionally ran over a copy of Radiohead’s Kid A with my Ford Escort. I even considered writing a formal letter of apology to Thom Yorke.

More so than any ’60s band save The Beatles, The Zombies laid the template for early power pop with their sublimely-crafted array of beautiful melodies and lush, majestic harmonies. And while they had evolved eons past the realm of simple pop by the time they recorded Odessey and Oracle, said album is the first Zombies title anyone ought to buy. Intertwining the psych and baroque pop genres with the group’s British Invasion roots, Odessey and Oracle is distinctively late ’60s-ish yet utterly timeless. So of course it was released to zero interest from the record-buying public.

Nearly a year after its April 1968 release (and well after the band’s breakup!), the rapidly-tanking Odessey and Oracle was revived by the surprise hit “Time of the Season”. Arguably one of the greatest hit singles of the ’60s, this #3 U.S. smash precipitated a cash-in reissue of the LP. Newcomers to the Zombies experience will be surprised to see that this particular track is the album’s very last song – it wasn’t supposed to be the hit! That there are other, earlier songs that showed obvious hit potential is a testament to the strength of the record. Conceived, written, and recorded at a point in music when the “album” was still a new concept and lesser bands filled out long-players with covers and throwaways, Odessey and Oracle offers a depth of riches that’s quite rare for its time. Just as importantly, it embraces psychedelia without succumbing to its excesses and flaws, its trippy textures and dreamy soundscapes illuminating the melodies, not replacing them.

Having lost their record deal with Decca, The Zombies decided to call it quits in the spring of 1967. Aiming for one last visionary hurrah that would redeem the group as true artists, The Zombies went to CBS A & R man Derek Everett and secured a one-off record deal. And as they say, the rest is history. Recorded cheaply and hurriedly without any interference from producers or label execs, Odessey and Oracle sounds beautifully focused, with the emphasis remaining on the songs and the self-production coming off celestial but not bloated. There are minimal, if any, overdubs, and the sophistication of the material is nicely balanced by a genuine “live in the studio” sound. Making great use of the mellotron, acoustic piano, minor key shifts, and Colin Blunstone’s rich, plaintive vocals, this imploding band with nothing to lose ended up making one of the greatest and most influential long players in the annals of English pop. It’s just such a pretty album – and I don’t think a single LP in all of popular music has ever made better use of harmonies.

And what about the songs? “Care of Cell 44”, the first-ever rock song about a man with a girlfriend in prison, boasts harmonies that Queen probably admired - and one of the catchiest melodies ever committed to vinyl! Gorgeous, symphonic stunners like “Changes” and “Maybe After He’s Gone” hint at the album the Beach Boys could have made after Pet Sounds. “Beechwood Park” is picture perfect psych-pop, but with a decidely English bent – way closer to Village Green era Kinks than to anything coming out of San Francisco at the time. With its peppy feel, circular harmonies, cheeky lyrics, and radio-friendly chorus, “Friends of Mine” brings to mind the Paul McCartney side of the Beatles (which I actually prefer – so sue me!). And let’s be real – “Time of the Season” is the business! What kind of crack were CBS’s UK execs smoking to not be won over upon first contact with this magnum opus of psychedelic soul? Legend has it that Blunstone and guitarist/songwriter Rod Argent almost came to blows in an argument over how this song was to be sung. Thank God Argent prevailed!

So today I started driving to work, and a spring miracle occurred. My presumed-dead disc player had, as if by magic, revived itself over the weekend. I pushed the eject button. The error code vanished, and out popped my treasured copy of Odessey and Oracle, which I immediately snatched and returned to the safety of its environmentally unfriendly jewel case. It will live to spin again, countless times, to my listening delight. So fuck Thom Yorke – Kid A still sucks!

-Josh Rutledge

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