The Album List #33: The Zombies “Odessey And Oracle”

So, this is what orange sunshine does to your brain…

This album is legendary. The crash and burn tale of the Zombies is a favourite among music geeks. A simple tale of St. Alban’s lads form band, then release a single called “She’s Not There” that I consider to be among the greatest songs ever recorded, and within four years released three albums and completely disintegrated into other projects before reuniting in the early 1990s when everyone realized that the Zombies were among the top five bands of the British invasion and deserved a wider audience. While “She’s Not There”, “Tell Her No” , and “Time of the Season” are pretty ubiquitous songs, they weren’t necessarily as big at the time as you might think, and certainly not as appreciated as they deserved to be. It must have been tough to be a British band circa 1964-1968. Those damn Liverpudlians kinda dominated the conversation. As they still do. Which is why they aren’t on the list.

The Zombies are one of the oddest bands to be successful in history. The band’s sound springs from Ron Argent’s Mellotron playing, and his later songwriting based around the instrument.  In the era of psychedelia, with its sonic waves of guitar virtuosity, they sounded different within the different. There is also an expediency of ideas- the album is about half an hour-long for a dozen tracks, a Ramones-like ratio. Their biggest hit topped U.S. charts two years after the album was released- and two years after the band had broken up. The band is exquisitely English, but they musically retell Faulkner short stories. And the lyrics are ridiculously cheerful for a band on the verge of disintegrating, even if they’re singing about talking about a friend in prison.

By the way, YouTube is loaded with footage of the reformed band on tour, and “Care of Cell 44” appears to be a beloved crowd fave. And Colin Blunstone sounds very much as he did in 1967.

In my never-ending search for music the inspires me and in trying to get someone on this planet to have an honest discussion about music that doesn’t involve a long, protracted discussion on why the Beatles are awesome ( as if there is another opinion), I love to bring out Odessey and Oracle.  Deeply devoted 1960s fans, and British music fans, all will completely get it. But its people like me, who grew up heavily influenced by their parent’s oldies radio and K-Tel compilations, who dismiss the band as a two (or three) hit wonder who disappeared without a trace who end up surprised by the album. It truly is a remarkable achievement. Rich instrumentation, complex harmonies and chord progression ( the benefit of not being a guitar band is that you tend to be wildly experimental with your structure), with unique stories to tell and a clear p.o.v. If all albums were this assured and this well put together, the world would be a better place.

The band’s sound was based around Ron Argent’s fantastic keyboard work, but they also had one of the greatly underappreciated vocalists in Blunstone, who’s breathy tenor is as crucial to the band’s overall sound. A voice unadorned of massive vibrato, he gently sails over the massive sound of the Mellotron without being overwhelmed by it. A Zombies song sounds like the Zombies because of the very distinct sound of Blunstone’s voice. He remains one of the top ten singers in music. And he really sounds the same now. It’s eerie. And wonderful. I need more singers with his kind of discipline and consistency.

There are scores of bands and albums that get overlooked in their time only to regularly appear on lists like this.  The Zombie’s exquisite and carefully put together swan song is an example of how music writers cannot just let good albums go. Odessey is the album I play when I want to listen to the best thing the 1960s has to offer but I don’t want something overplayed or familiar. Every single time I play the album, I am shocked by how perfect it is.

As a swan song, it will never be topped.

*As a treat, enjoy the legendary “She’s Not There ” as well, because the song remains unbelievably good.



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