Tuesday , September 29 2020
Revisiting a classic slab of Britpop. . .

Zombies, Odessey & Oracle

Over the summer, Borders Books ran a decent CD promo entitled “Rock Essentials,” wherein a selected 100 classic rock titles were offered at 25% off. While you could argue with some of the selections (two Duran Duran discs? I’d have stopped just with Rio), it did afford customers the opportunity to get new copies of albums we’d once owned on vinyl but hadn’t yet replaced for one reason or another.
For me, one of these selections was the Zombies’ Odessey & Oracle (Big Beat), an album from 1968 that’s been unfairly buried in the United States (at this writing, the only available reissue is a British import). I originally bought the vinyl as a college student enraptured by its big hit single, “Time of the Season,” but I quickly got snared (hiss the “s” as you say that) by the rest of this great pop platter. Though the band disbanded not long after its release, its pop legacy was assured by Odessey. A hoarde of rock groups responded in the late sixties to the challenge laid down by the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, but few came close to matching that work (think of the Stones’ flailing Satanic Majesties for one attempt that flopped). The Zombies’ disc is arguably one of the few unequivocal successes, a credit to the band’s two songwriters, Rod Argent and Chris White.
It starts on a deceptive note: “Care of Cell 44,” a jaunty piano-driven pop tune about a boy waiting for his best girl to come home from prison. Characterized by striking use of mellotron flourishes, a wonderful White bassline and chorus breaks with Beach Boy-ish humming, it’s the kind of song that nearly sneaks its lyrical content right past you (the reference to “train fare money” sounds like something out of a fluffy Hollies song) unless you’re reading the song titles on the album cover as you’re playing the disc for the first time. It’s followed by “A Rose for Emily,” the band’s bid for “Eleanor Rigby” melancholy made darker by its title reference to one of William Faulkner’s more gothic short stories. It’s a sparingly performed tune, just piano and breathy Zombies lead Colin Blunstone for most of the track, but the results are starkly effective.
Like the Kinks’ masterwork, Village Green Preservation Society, many of the songs on this disc are suffused with wistful reminiscence. (Makes you wonder what was in the air to get all these young British lads so nostalgic for “summer days in Beechwood Park” but so it went.) The best of these has to be “Changes,” which compares and contrasts a young girl (“I knew her when summer was her crown. . .”) from innocence to experience. Sung with a choir-y chorus, its melody supported by flute, it’s a prime example of the anything goes spirit that characterized the era’s best pop.
Though there isn’t a duff track on the album, three of the considerable highlights include “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914),” a grim anti-war song told from the PoV of a young man drafted to the Western Front; “Friends of Mine,” plus “This Will Be Our Year,” an optimistic love song that was recently apprpriated by OK Go for a Move.On fundraiser. “Butcher’s Tale” was mistakenly chosen as the album’s first release in America (perhaps the record company was hoping to duplicate the success of Eric Burden’s lesser “Sky Pilot”?) though it’s tone is so blunt and the song’s narrator is so palpably scared that it was obviously doomed from the start. (Great use of a wheezy pump organ in the song, though.) “Friends” is a more immediately infectious cut: an outsider’s appreciation of a idealized couple in love (“And when I feel sad/Or people disappoint me/That’s when I need you two/To help me believe.”) that whimsically lists all the singer’s couple friends. (Wonder how many of ’em are still together today?)
The record ends with “Time of the Season,” a showcase for keyboardist Argent’s pop/jazz organ work (Argent was also responsible for the atmospheric “aahs” that punctuate the song) and one of Blunstone’s best vocals. Though the band lead reportedly chafed at Argent’s attempts at micromanaging things in the studio, in the end the group tension may’ve helped: with its hissing ambience and sinuously halting rhythm, “Season” is one of the sexiest 60’s Britpop songs on record. Though the band would soon go its separate ways – Argent and bassist/songwriter White to 70’s hitmakers Argent, Blunstone to a series of forgettable featherweight solo albums – nothing they’ve done since has come up to that unmatchable summer single.

I’ve recently read on Rhino’s home site that Argent and Blunstone have reconciled and are putting out a new “Zombies” album this fall. (What? No Chris White?) I’m ambivalent about this news – how many rock reunion albums are there which have been worth the wait, anyway? – though I know I’ll still be checking it out. After all these years of going without a good copy of the group’s best disc, I’ll be damned if I’m gonna miss the opportunity to be in on the first release of even a mediocre Zombies album. . .

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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