Odessey & Oracle (1968) *****
I reviewed this nearly a dozen years ago on my old site and time hasn't changed my opinion: this is an essential pop masterpiece that in the mildly psychedelic, baroque-pop sweepstakes betters the somewhat overhyped Pet Sounds and track for track rivals the very best of the top tier Beatles LPs (yes, seriously - and recorded at Abbey Road, nonetheless). Any complaints of lack of variety are mooted by the fact that the piano & mellotron pop style the Zombies perfected here is perfectly perfect in perfection: harmonically and melodically Argent & White's tunes display a sophistication few of their British Invasion peers could match (John & Paul at their best, and maybe Ray Davies on an ambitious day). It would be a lie to claim that the album sounds like nothing before or since (the Coldplay comparison in my previous review was not facetious); unlike most other latter-half of the '60s masterpieces, the Zombies aren't particularly experimental or interested in stretching any sonic boundaries - what you get are a dozen rather conventional keyboard pop songs of exceptional quality. The melodramatic "Butcher's Tale (Western Front 1914)" breaks the monotony of the style, but not in a good way, and along with the rather hookless "Changes," counts as the album's two sole bummers. The rest of the tunes are gorgeous mini-masterstrokes of melodious invention and pure pop craftsmanship, god bless us every single one. Ironically, "Time of the Season," became an international #1 smash only after the band had broken up (they went in intending the album as their swansong), but is it truly any better than any other random tune on the album? No, not really. The opener, "Care of Cell 44," opens the album on a "Good Day Sunshine,"-ish poundingly anthemic note, surging a little too forcefully into the blaring chorus, but hang on, what are those lyrics about? Greeting your girlfriend on her day of release from prison! "A Rose for Emily," (inspired by the William Faulkner short story) and "Beechwood Park," (which some claim swipes the melody from "A Whiter Shade of Pale," but my ears can't detect it) are similar in a stately balladic piece, while "Brief Candles," (apparently about lonely alcoholics, from what I can make out, though I could be and clearly am wrong) and "Maybe After He's Gone," (after you break up with your boyfriend, will you please pretty please consider little old me? What a wimp!) employ the quietly intense verses/blaring chorus trick again. "Hung Up On a Dream," veers the closest to psych-pop territory with its hippy-dippy kaleidescope technicolor lyrics and dreamy yet surging melodic structure - as gee-orgee-ous as the pretty girl you've got a crush on. But it's "This Will Be Our Year," which is the sleeper - much simpler in structure and all the more effective for its relative simplicity; there aren't too many rousing yet understated New Year's songs to celebrate the incoming year, and for that alone this shall always rank as a classic: what other song are you possibly going to play as midnight strikes on Jan. 31? "Friends of Mine," bounces like a rolling puppy in its awe-shucks name-listing of couples in love, though it does make me cringe a little when my own name is listed ("Liz and Brian"). Well, you'd cringe, too, if the song listed your name as well. Especially if your name was Brian. Oh, I haven't mentioned "I Want Her, She Wants Me," yet. That's because it's rather ordinary. Not bad. Just nothing special.
Now, on to the bonus tracks, which are the reason I'm reviewing this album twice (that, and my original review wasn't that great; this one's much more detailed - longwinded if you don't prefer). Make sure you somehow obtain the German import on the Repertoire label, as the 16 bonus tracks make it the most fully packed and definitive edition. The bonus tracks aren't universally excellent as the album proper is, which is to be expected, but I daresay there's hardly any track that doesn't have some bit of merit - the lone instrumental, "Conversation Off Floral Street," comes the closest, but that's just because it's an instrumental. The two covers ("Gotta Get a Hold of Myself," and "Going Out of My Head,") are wisely pop not R&B covers; the Zombies were clearly much more suited tackling Burt Bacharach than Willie Dixon. "Don't Cry For Me," leaps out as the Zombies' most excitingly convincing up-tempo raver - you could almost say it rocks. "Girl Help Me," and "Smokey Day," are of a piece, sustaining a moody mood that smokily reflects the latter title; "I Know She Will," is a cloyingly touching Miss Lonelyhearts advice column; and the singles recorded shortly after the Odyssey sessions, "Imagine the Swan," and "I Call You Mine," would've fit swell to swell the original LP up to 14 tracks. Oh, and there's the frothily bouncy-lovely "She Loves the Way They Love Her," as well as the measured-stately "Walking in the Sun," and.....what am I, going to review every single track? I almost did but I'll quit while I'm ahead, I think I've covered all the essential stuff. The bonus tracks essentially double the original album and thus double the original five star rating, which means that this album receives **********. Combined with the 31-track Repertoire issue of Begin Here, these two discs constitute the complete recorded studio output of the Zombies' 1960s material (sadly, they would briefly reunite to spoil their legacy to record a pair of one-offs in the '90s and '00s - which would make them two-offs, technically, I suppose). Minus BBC sessions and the like, but who needs those?