Album Of The Week Club Review: The Zombies - Odessey & Oracle

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The Zombies - Odessey & Oracle

Care Of Cell 44
A Rose For Emily
Maybe After He's Gone
Beechwood Park
Brief Candles
Hung Up On A Dream
Changes
I Want Her She Wants Me
This Will Be Our Year
Butchers Tale (Western Front 1914)
Friends Of Mine
Time Of The Season

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Recorded throughout 1967 at Abbey Road, with liberal doses of the Mellotron left behind by John Lennon after The Beatles completed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Odessey & Oracle may have been received indifferently on its release and a commercial flop, but it has since gained the status of a classic, regularly making it onto the ‘Best Albums of All Time’ lists and regarded as one of the records that helped expand the ambit of what could be achieved with a long-playing record in terms of daring arrangements and sectional song structure.

It was a psych-pop masterpiece, intricately arranged and woozy with melodic invention. Rod Argent’s command of Lennon's Mellotron enabled him to conjure rich orchestral textures, an effect heightened by piano and harpsichord.

Today, Odessey… is viewed as a landmark in the development of progressive music, alongside those other heady, baroque masterpieces Sgt Pepper…, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Love’s Forever Changes. It’s perhaps a stretch to suggest that you can draw a straight line from Odessey… to, say, Genesis’s Foxtrot or Yes’s Close To The Edge, but it pushed the boundaries of what could be achieved in a studio as purposefully as The Moody Blues’ Days Of Future Passed, Procol Harum’s Shine On Brightly, Family’s Music In A Doll’s House and Caravan’s Caravan.

Listen to Odesssy & Oracle.

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. Join the group now.

Here’s what we learned about Odessey & Oracle!

Background

Formed in 1962 by St Albans schoolboys Rod Argent (piano, organ vocals) and Colin Blunstone (vocals), The Zombies were part of the mid-60s wave of British invasion bands. Unlike their R&B-dominated counterparts, Argent and Blunstone leant more towards melodic songwriting, with harmonies and jazz influences, such as the singles She’s Not There and Whenever You’re Ready.

When the hits dried up, The Zombies signed to CBS to make Odessey And Oracle in 1967. Not only did it turn out to be their last album of the 60s, but it became a poignant, multi-layered swansong for the decade.

The recording took place at two iconic studios, Abbey Road and Olympic, using new technology combined with traditional instruments and song structures. The ‘new’ comes in the form of the Mellotron, which gives a stately, otherworldly feel to the tracks (and used partly out of necessity, as there was no money for session musicians). For the most part, the chirpy toe-tappers are gone.

In comes thoughtful conceptuality and folk-laden elegies, typified by the Victorian pump organ played by Rod Argent on Butcher’s Tale, giving a grim emphasis to the despairing soldier’s letter from the Western Front.

And although death, loss and ruined dreams loom large, the songs are delivered beautifully, culminating in Time Of The Season, which contains the seeds of the Zombies’ demise. Blunstone disliked the song intensely, arguing with Argent over the vocal delivery, triggering a discord which buried the band in December 1967, before the album saw the light of day and was seized upon the legion of fans who now hail it as a proto-prog-rock classic.

Other albums released in April 1968

Simon & Garfunkel - Bookends
Moby Grape - Wow/Grape
The Monkees - The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees
Sly & the Family Stone - Dance to the Music
Booker T and The MG's - Doin' Our Thing
Tiny Tim - God Bless
Amboy Dukes - Journey to the Center of the Mind
Eric Burdon & The Animals - The Twain Shall Meet

What they said

"Though it may not represent the sprawling, tripped-out experimentation of their times, The Zombies' unique brand of lyric wit and daring arrangement expanded the limits of pop. Odessey and Oracle stands as the band's fully realized statement of intent, the parting shot from one of the few originals in the devolving tail-end of the 1960s." (Pitchfork)

"Unlike a lot of albums of the psychedelic era, Odessey and Oracle doesn’t rely on any gimmick. It’s a straight up, no bullshit album, and as far as I’m concerned, one of the best collections of pop music ever recorded." (TinyMixTapes

"Some may think of the Zombies as a flash in the pan, but it’s really an unfair indictment considering the talent they had in the band. They were never quite as endearing as the Beatles, as English as the Kinks, as ambitious as The Who or as gritty as The Stones (not even close on that last one, actually). But over forty years after its release, Odessey and Oracle stands as one of the best rock albums of the 1960s." (Culture Thoughts)

What you said

Ed Brown: This is why I joined this club, to discover albums that I would have otherwise not have given the time of day. The only song that I was familiar with was Time Of The Season and I just wrote it off as some boring ass hippy shit but the rest of the album is surprisingly solid. Care Of Cell 44 is a new personal favorite. I will be listening to this album a lot over the next week. Thank you.

Hannah Wolfe: This album is of those forgotten masterpieces of its day. Deceivingly easy to listen to, Odyssey and Oracle is a dense, dynamic and textured listening experience disguised as sweet sixties pop. Marking a turning point in 1968 in the rock community, this record helped make room for psychedelic sounds in rock music along with groups like the 13th Floor Elevators and Iron Butterfly. Equal parts emotional and joyous, Odyssey and Oracle is one of the best records of its time.

Julien Thomas: Standing at the crossroads between Beatle-esque popsong craftsmanship, easily listenable sunshine baroque stuff and proto-progressive rock (mainly due to the clever use of Mellotron), this album carries tremendous and sometimes overwhelming emotional dimensions, which make it quite one-of-a-kind. It's such a pity it couldn't gain the recognition it deserved back in the day, nevertheless we have to acknowledge Al Kooper's wise taste and keen nose for making it known to the public, enough to encourage unscrupulous rascals to form several fake Zombies line-ups touring simultaneously across the USA after the true original band broke up ! One of them notoriously featuring future ZZ Top members Dusty Hill and Frank Beard!

Iain Macaulay: I’ve never heard this album before now, other than Time of the Season. I gave it a listen last night, then another one this evening. And, I understand why I’ve never liked Time of the Season. Sorry, but it’s all a wee bit too twee for me. Better luck next week.

Jim Linning: Given it a couple of listens now and while it's not really my "thing" I quite liked it. Whimsical and very much of its time, it has aged remarkably well, and whilst I wouldn't rush to put it back on I certainly wouldn't turn it off if someone else wanted to listen to it. 6/10. This isn't my favourite era for music and if I had to chose a favourite from 1968 it would be SF Sorrow from the Pretty Things. Similarly whimsical in parts it is on the whole much darker and more powerful (at least to my ears).

Olav Martin Bjørnsen: I understand that Odessey and Oracle is the album this band is most renowned for, and that it's status as a classic album is one that it gained retrospectively over a number of years. Personally I didn't know all that much about neither band nor album, and found it interesting getting to know this one. 

A certain naive spirit that I associate with the mid rather than late 60's is a recurring trait throughout this album. Otherwise I note playful instrument details, at times amazing vocal harmonies of a generally uplifting manner, contrasted with lyrics of a more bittersweet variety and other details that adds a melancholic and softly mournful atmosphere to this album. Ever so lightly coated in time typical psychedelic tinged flavoring, in this case the Mellotron, as well as the brittle sound of the harpsichord. Not so much a summer breeze album as an album recalling the memories of a summer breeze if you like.

I find the band most intriguing when they get a bit more adventurous, Hung Up On A Dream can be mentioned as the prime example for me there. I also like it when they take a slight left turn into territories of a less delicate nature: The sparse but rather harrowing Butchers Tale (Western Front 1914) makes an impression there. The more playful and less naive spirit explored in concluding cut Time of the Season also comes across as a highlight for me.

To how much a degree one will be intrigued by the charms of Odessey and Oracle will probably come down to how much you treasure the gentler sides of 60's lightly psychedelic flavored pop/rock. Soft expressions and bittersweet, softly contrasting moods define a lot of this album, and if this alongside 60's pop and rock is something you tend to enjoy, this is an album worth taking a closer look at.

Mike Knoop: I think I know the same three Zombies’ songs most people know: She’s Not There, Tell Her No, and Time of the Season. The last is one of the great pop nuggets of the late 60’s – both snotty and brooding, like a love child of the Stones and the Doors. So, with that in mind, I was excited about hearing the rest of the album it’s on. 

And it’s fine: Pretty chamber pop with absolutely gorgeous vocal harmonies that belie the melancholy lyrics. Colin Blunstone has a fine, if indistinguishable, voice and the guitar takes a backseat to Rod Argent’s swirling keyboards and those aforementioned choral harmonies. 

It’s all very listenable; pretty, sad pop songs that drift by for 30 minutes – and then comes the amazing Time of the Season, so different from the rest of the album that it feels tacked on as the surefire single. Which is strange, since, web research shows, it wasn’t actually released until long after the first two singles flopped. 

Again, it’s a good album that I like a little more with each listen, but very different from the best-known song.

Pete Mineau: It had been quite a few years since I last listened to Odessey And Oracle. After giving it four listens straight through, I found it reminded me of The Hollies, The Moody Blues, and The Move all mixed together. That's when I realized why it had taken me so long to listen to it again! Why bother with the homogenized sound of Odessey And Oracle when I could actually listen to The Hollies, The Moody Blues, and The Move! I'm not saying that it's a bad album... in fact it's got a very pleasant sound to it. I can see why some people speak so highly of it. Unfortunately, for me, none of the songs really move me except for Time Of The Season, and it seems out of place with the rest of the album. I would rate Odessey And Oracle a 2 out of 5. Nice harmonies, but quite a bit dated in it's psychedelic pop sound and no real memorable tunes other than the "hit single".

James Praesto: I will happily admit that the 60’s was a lost decade for me. Born in the early 70’s, I wasn’t of age to get into my own brand of music until the 70/80-shift, and metal was my poison. Throughout my musical explorations, I was always intrigued by bands who had a whimsical approach to their songwriting, incorporating into their rock what I later realized was that psychedelic flower-power sounding melodic element. With the hair bands, you had Enuff Z’nuff doing their Beatlesque glam rock, and later on you had Redd Kross with their straight up 60’s pop take on alternative rock, and ultimately one of my favorite bands, Jellyfish, busted onto the scene, hitting a high with their progressive power pop rock opus “Spilt Milk”. 

This club has allowed me to go back to that mysterious decade and find nuggets I would never had started digging for myself, unless having had that hatchet put in my hands and being told where to start chopping away. I always knew of The Zombies, and, as most others, I had heard Time of the Season, but that’s where my knowledge of them pretty much started and ended. I always dismissed them as just another one hit wonder, falling between the cracks of welfare-Beatles and a poor man’s Beach Boys. However, having listened to the album all week, I have fallen in love with their clever melodies, their solemn lyrics, their interesting arrangements and wonderful choices of instrumentation. 

Songs like Care of Cell 44 and A Rose for Emily evoke deceptively simple enough 60’s Brit Invasion pop at first glance, but with every listen I am blown away by the smart vocal melodies and the musical textures. Colin Blunstone sings in a lower register than most of his 60’s pop counterparts, and with a somewhat subdued tone, which brings a somber touch to the songs, even when the subject matter is not as gloomy as it may seem. This also contrasts nicely with the higher vocal harmonies performed by him, Rod and Chris. Where I had earlier shrugged them off as Beach Boys wannabes, I now hear more of their church choir boy background in the arrangements at times. Sometimes their harmonies get a little overbearing, though, and I wish they had dialled them down a little, but I guess it was a sign of the times. Throughout the album, Chris White’s fluid bass lines add another melodic layer to the songs, and Rod Argent’s many different choices of piano, mellotron, harpsichord and organs are always spot on.

Beechwood Park is a beautiful mellotron-driven little thing, with excellent vocal arrangements, both for lead and background. I found myself humming this song at work, or in my car, out of nowhere. Something about the haunting memories of past summer days really struck a chord with me. Brief Candles, likewise, is charming in its soft presentation of people thinking back at moments in their lives. I don’t find any fillers on this album. I have no problem listening to the whole thing from beginning to end, without skipping anything. People have said that Time of the Season is the odd man out, but I don’t think so. Much like The Butcher’s Tale (love that pump organ), it finds its proper place in the quirky collection of little innovative creations that this album is full of. For me, the odd duck is instead This Will Be Our Year as it doesn’t have the same level of arrangements or instrumentation the other songs do. Sure, it’s cute, but falls a little short compared to the other ones.

I think one of the things that impressed me the most was the level of musical understanding these guys had for how to write, arrange and record their songs. This is an album they produced themselves, using the Abbey Road engineers to twiddle the knobs, but it shows a surprising amount of method and execution to get the sentiments of the songs recorded with just the right vibe, choosing the right instruments for each song and also knowing when to pull back and just let the song do its thing. The fact that they relentlessly rehearsed everything before going in for their short recording sessions really comes through as this is a very well performed album. I also very much enjoyed reading the interesting background stories of the recordings, when I did my research, and I feel we are all lucky the damn thing even saw the light of day.

If I only take one album with me out of the Album of the Week Club, that I had never heard before and absolutely fell in love with, this is it. So far…

John Michael O'Brien: I discovered the Zombies whilst working in a record store. I knew the hits and radio material. I first investigated the early material, then moved forward to this record. They evolved into this style similar to the trajectory that most Brits took, Beatles, Stones, Moodies, Who. I have always likened it to the Stones' Satanic Majesty record. 

O&O is a good record, but would not work well as the point of entry to their body of work.

Kev Sullivan: Wow. What a juxtaposition on last weeks. Which is why I joined... to catch those that slipped through my net. This is now a bought cd. Lovely production and sound and from the intro I was on board. The downer is that I love lyrics or at least need to know what they mean and I have no idea what’s being sung here so I need to look that up. 

But nice. Chilled sound. Not what I expected from these guys at all. Not sure what I did expect but not this.

Scott Norman: The Zombies' Oracle and Odyssey ends with the irresistible pop masterpiece Time of the Season. It is merely the ending to a twelve song journey through storytelling/psychedelia couched in the era of The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and The Beatles' Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. In comparison to Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper, it sounds a bit dated (not always a bad thing) at times but is never dismissible. It just has too many powerful moments to be cast aside as an artefact. While you are listening you will hear elements of so many mid to late 60's bands that you aren't sure if the Zombies were influenced or if they were doing the influencing. A few gems in my mind are Care Of Cell 44, Brief Candles, This Will Be Our Year and of course Time of the Season. The remaining tracks are not a disappointment, but serve to support. My best advice is to start at track one and play it all the way through, over and over.

Final Score: 7.19 ⁄10 (106 votes cast, with a total score of 763)

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