The Zombies - "Odessey and Oracle'1968
Rating - 9/A
Here's an interesting little artefact of the vissicitudes of the music biz. The Zombies were one of many 60s British Invasion bands who unleashed a spew of R&B covers on the airwaves in a quest for global domination. Their originals were distinguished by a great sense of melody. At heart, they were basically a very smart, catchy pop band so the R&B covers tend to sound pretty forced - their cover of Summertime is so blue-eyed it's almost self-parodic. Anyhow, after some initial single successes they embarked upon a career of some 3 years of unrelieved obscurity. Distressed at the lack of success, they convened for one last time to release an album (their second, by the way) that would stand as their final hurrah. This album has, over the years, scored one sleeper chart hit and emerged as a sort of hidden gem of the late 60s. It's often cited as being a rival to other classics of the era like The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and whatever Beatles album the reviewier in question feels like bashing, but that may be overstating the case.
What we have here is a charming, often catchy and sometimes moving collection of pop songs. They're very well-crafted pop songs with good melodies, interesting parts, nice harmonies and everything, certainly intelligent pop rather than faceless product. There are traces of the environmental influence of psychedelia, and the keyboard player brings in traces of classical-influenced motifs that are fairly innovative and give the music some distinction.
I wouldn't hail this album as a lost grail and so on, but it is a nice little find, and on its own terms - intelligent pop rock with good melodies - it may even be a masterpiece. I wouldn't know for sure, my expertise runs more towards heavier fare. But there's no denying the charm of this album. The first side of the album is almost unversally gorgeous. Care Of Cell 44 is a catchy song about writing to one's girlfriend, who is in jail, and counting the days until they set her free again. This is just the sort of thing I like about Britpop - the song, though catchy, is not musically unique, and it doesn't stray beyond love-song themes, but it gives those themes a quirky, unexpected twist that add a lot of oddball charm to the proceedings. A Rose For Emily is a rather charming keyboard-dominated ballad about an Eleanor-Rigbyish lonely person. This song could have been pure schlock with an excessive arrangement and overly impassioned vocals, but the relatively simple score (possibly dicatated by low budgets) and the straightforward-but-heartfelt vocals (a hallmark of the best of the British Invasion sound, for me. Even Jagger was rarely OTT, though it isn't his heart that the feelings come from, most of the time) make it easy to appreciate the beauty and pathos of the song without any twinges of outraged taste. Maybe After He's Gone is a little more average, but it has a very catchy chorus. Beechwood Park with its nostalgia for childhood memories is another highlight - it's just so pretty and wistful. I dislike a lot of modern pop-rock (that masquerades as alternative for some reason) precisely because it is unable to channel this very simple sort of sadness, and tries to deal in a Cobain-wannabe suicidal, mentally-unsound anguish instead. Brief Candles is even more memorable, a really wonderful melody that'll stick in your head instantly (it's running through mine right now) and lyrics about people who have lost someone nursing their memories.
At this point, however, things get a little monotonous for me, because the band puts in a number of songs that try to be a little more rocky (they have more drums and mid-tempo, that is) and the result is a sort of wimpy competence that appeals to me less than the all-out balladry. Hung Up On A Dream and I Want Her She Wants Me are perfectly decent songs - and the latter has actually grown on me but they just float pass me with their inoffensive melodies and clean tenor vocals about love. Nestled between them is an odd mellotron-dominated excursion called Changes which is quite experimental, and has a few parts that work and a few that don't quite. The charm is back with the contagiously upbeat This Will Be Our Year and the amusingly amiable Friends Of Mine. Dumped between these is another stab at variety - Butchers Tale (Western Front 1914), an anti-war song that does diverge from the general mood and theme of the album, but is decent enough on its own terms. Even if the nerdy vocals make the first-person narrative seem especially unlikely. The album closer, Time Of The Season, was of course the great sleeper hit of the album, about a year after release, by which time the band had already broken up. It's a nice peppy piece of pop rock with great keyboard playing and so on. It's a good song, but extremist that I am, I seem to like The Zombies best when they're in all-out tragic mode.
::ETA::Actually, all these songs grow on me more and mor with repeated listens, so I'm bumping the rating from a strong B to a normal A.
The re-release I've heard has a couple of extra tracks - but these are just a few of those alternate takes/mixes/studio versions that make a lot of these re-releases as frustrating as they are essential. There's another version that includes a couple of singles from the same era - that may be a better package.
The Eiderdown-Stuffing Bottomline - For the most part, this album is much like an eiderdown, a deliciously soft and warm pop rock quilt. A few threads of psychedelia give variety, while the keyboard-led sound bestows uniqueness on the sound. Worth the occasional revival just to ensure it gets a few new listeners every now and then.