The Zombies: Odessey and Oracle (pt. 2)


Dear Matthew:

A few short hours after the Magma show, I left Vancouver for a few days. (Not related. Honest.) I returned yesterday evening, and made my way almost immediately to the Vogue Theatre downtown to see my favourite sad-guy band, Belle and Sebastian. It was an excellent show. I woke up this morning, loaded up Odessey and Oracle onto my phone and went out for a walk down toward the beach — and when I pressed play, I was hit with one of the most intense feelings of déjà vu I have experienced in recent memory.

Seriously, the resemblance is uncanny. I mean, I knew Belle and Sebastian had a certain wistful nostalgia, but I didn’t realize just how deep it ran. I expect you could probably take someone who hadn’t heard anything by either band and play them a selection of either band’s work and they wouldn’t be much better than random chance at guessing which band it is. In fact, I’m still grappling with the possibility that Stuart Murdoch is actually some sort of Dorian Grey-esque being who just hasn’t stopped making pop music since the ’60s. (Seriously, tell me ‘I’m a Cuckoo‘ doesn’t sound like a b-side from Odessey.)

I am exaggerating for comedic effect, of course. The Zombies are much more blissed out than Murdoch and company, which is the main reason I don’t think I’ll ever like them as much. The sense of wisftulness that permeates even the peppiest B&S tunes is the secret sauce, as is the case with most of their sad-guy contemporaries — Rilo Kiley, Bloc Party, LCD Soundsystem, and all of those other bands mopey college kids were listening to in the mid 2000s. To make a lazy comparison, this is Belle and Sebastian on Prozac. You’re right, though — this is music scientifically designed to release endorphins. It was perfect for a sunny walk along the bay. (Of course, mere hours beforehand, a tanker had spilled a bunch of oil into it. I’m reaching for The Boy With the Arab Strap already…)

What is it about the British that made them so good at this particular brand of pop music? Was it the climate? Was it the lingering cultural and socioeconomic shadow of the Second World War? Was it just that they were the first to do it? Either way, they’re codifiers of the genre, and they continue to excel at it. (Calling a band as Scottish as Belle and Sebastian British is probably borderline offensive, but humour me, it’s the same landmass, and it’s not like I’m calling them English.)

When all is said and done, though, it’s like any sort of immediate endorphin release — too much can’t be good for you. Maybe it’s because I’m so used to their modern-day sad-guy doppelgangers, but Odessey feels like musical candy: sweet and very satisfying if you’re in the mood for it, but I wouldn’t want it for every meal.

Still, sometimes it’s just the thing you’re after.

— Matt

The Zombies: Odessey and Oracle (pt. 1)


Dear Matt:

Yeah, I wasn’t expecting overwhelming enthusiasm towards Magma, frankly. But, be content that you have now experienced the proggiest of the prog, and that it’s all smooth sailing from here.

I’m thinking that you’ll need a palate cleanser after a two-hour concert of ‘the least accessible music you’ve ever heard.’ So, this week you’ll be listening to a jaunty little trifle from 1966: The Zombies’ Odessey [sic] and Oracle. (The guy who painted the album cover couldn’t spell, and by the time he turned in his work, it was too late to fix it. The album has been known by its misspelled name ever since. Oh, the 60s.)

The Zombies were a late vestige of the British Invasion. They had two fantastic songwriters in keyboardist Rod Argent (who went on to have a successful career with his solo project, Argent), and bassist Chris White (who went on to have almost no subsequent career, save for co-writing a few hits for Rod Argent’s successful solo project, Argent).

In their day, they were probably best known for their 1964 hit “She’s Not There.” Nowadays, they’re almost entirely remembered for this album, which is just wall-to-wall joy, even by psychedelic standards. I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered another album so straightforwardly focussed on coaxing endorphins out of the pituitary. Even the sad, disturbing songs like “A Rose for Emily” or “Butcher’s Tale” are cathartically sad and disturbing.

60s psychedelia was a complex and unruly beast. But, I find that most psychedelic albums fit into one of two broad categories that I refer to as Peppers and Pipers. (This is clever. Stay with me on this.)

See, in early 1967, the Beatles were at Abbey Road studios, recording their album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which I think is tied with Hamlet for the title of Most Acclaimed Thing Ever. Sgt. Pepper is meticulous, crafted, layered, and ornate. The songs have a sort of British restraint to them, in spite of their lush orchestrations and the colourful album art.

Meanwhile, literally just down the hall from the Beatles, in the same studio, Pink Floyd was recording their debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which foregrounds all of the chaotic, improvisatory, stream-of-consciousness tendencies in late 60s pop music.

These two albums are both undeniably psychedelic, but they represent two entirely different strands of psychedelia. Other Peppers include Forever ChangesPet Sounds, and Days of Future Passed. Other Pipers include Electric Ladyland, Their Satanic Majesties Request, and The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators.

The Zombies recorded Odessey and Oracle a few months later, in that same studio. It’s much more of a Pepper than a Piper. And, I suspect that’s why it’s aged so well, in spite of being so thoroughly of its time. Really good songwriting never stops being awesome. Loose, garage band jamming kind of does.

Side note: I am absurdly certain that “Care of Cell 44” will at some point be featured on Orange is the New Black. Just wait.

I really hope you like this. I hope that, because I feel like you’re winning this blog in terms of assigning music that I’ll like. I’ve revisited Deltron 3030 and Wrong frequently since those initial assignments, and they’ve improved with multiple listens. One of these weeks, I’m hoping to find something that’ll work that well for you.

Maybe this is it? In any case, it’s about as far from Magma as you can get. I expect there’s virtue in that.

— Matthew

Kate Bush: Hounds of Love (pt. 2)


Dear Matthew:

I thought you told me this album was going to be weird.

OK, I mean, it’s a little out of the ordinary. The second side did get a little out there. (The brief highland dance interlude definitely blindsided me.) And Bush’s voice is certainly not a typical pop star voice. But mostly I was just like, yeah, I could get into this.

As I thought about it, I realized that’s because I already am.

Seinfeld (stay with me on this one) is widely considered to be one of the best, most successful, most groudbreaking television programs of all time. The so-called ‘show about nothing,’ following the often bizarre adventures of four borderline-sociopathic residents of New York City, completely revolutionized the world of primetime TV. But if you were to take the average middle school-aged kid today in 2015 and show them a random episode of Seinfeld, you’d probably get a response along the lines of: “This isn’t funny.” (Or at the very least, that it’s not particularly original.)

Of course, it’s not that Seinfeld isn’t funny. Rather, it’s that Seinfeld was so funny that everything about it has been imitated by its successors to the point that aspects of the show that were once groundbreaking (the unlikable cast, idiosyncratic language, the dissection of the quirks of polite society, etc.) are now a standard part of the genre. Seinfeld changed TV so fundamentally that, to someone with a cultural tabula rasa, its explosive originality is essentially invisible.

This phenomenon crops up in other media all the time. I’m sure this hypothetical middle-schooler would be completely nonplussed by Die Hard, and would tell you that Final Fantasy VII is a category-five cliché storm dressed up to passingly resemble a video game.

I put it to you that Kate Bush is the Seinfeld of female art-pop stars.

Bush has this apparent reputation for weirdness, but taken alongside contemporary acts like Björk, Fever Ray, or even someone like M.I.A., she’s really not as out there as I’ve been lead to believe. But I expect that this is in large part because she was the prototype for this particular type of act. Hell, even Lady Gaga owes some portion of her success to Kate Bush.

This was a fun listen. Plus, I now have some interesting new ideas for future assignments. But that’s all yet to come — I still need to rub your face in some punk rock first.

— Matt

Kate Bush: Hounds of Love (pt. 1)


Dear Matt:

In honour of this blog having gotten weird already, allow me to introduce you to Kate Bush.

Bush is one of a long line of British artists who constantly gets called “eccentric,” but also periodically enjoys massive mainstream success. (See also, Lewis Carroll, Monty Python, Bush’s occasional duet partner Peter Gabriel.)

I’m at a loss to explain why Kate Bush is popular. But, I do feel like I can pin down part of what makes her connect with her most devoted fans: she possesses a seemingly supernatural amount of empathy.

Bush writes deeply personal songs, but they feel like other people’s personal songs. She’s written lyrics from the POV of Houdini’s wife, a man contemplating fatherhood, and a curiously articulate fetus, among others. These ultra-specific psychological portraits can be alienating, before you find your footing.

Maybe you’ll agree with me that pop music is generally contingent on the listener’s sympathy: you’re meant to identify personally with what’s being sung. That’s why there are so goddamn many love songs. But, Kate Bush’s best songs work differently. They can make you feel empathy for a person to whom you are entirely dissimilar — even if, like me, you don’t normally possess much of that.

I think this is probably why Hounds of Love is Bush’s most beloved album. It’s a mix of genuinely personal songs with some semblance of universality (“Running Up That Hill” became Bush’s second-biggest hit) and tracks that entreat you to work past their alienating strangeness and come to an understanding with their protagonist.

This latter approach comes to the fore on the album’s second side. Much like our perpetual favourite reference point, 2112, one side of Hounds of Love is just a bunch of unrelated songs, and the other side is a sprawling conceptual epic. That epic, subtitled “The Ninth Wave,” is as narratively ambiguous as Deltron 3030, but there’s a nominal throughline involving a woman who (nearly?) drowns following a shipwreck.

I adore this side’s first track, “And Dream of Sheep.” It’s based on the ingenious premise (Kate Bush songs often have “premises”) of relating the inner monologue of a personified lighthouse as it falls asleep and inadvertently causes a tragedy. Of all of Kate Bush’s massive, Wes Andersonian cast of eccentrics and quietly tragic figures, this lighthouse may be my favourite.

But, Bush’s all-time greatest feat of empathy lives on side one: “Cloudbusting” is told from the perspective of a child — the son of dissident scientist Wilhelm Reich. The narrator’s inner monologue seems as alienating to an adult listener as it probably should. And yet we feel for him. “I hid my yo-yo in the garden,” he sings to his imprisoned father, “I can’t hide you from the government.”

Sometimes, manipulating symbols doesn’t affect reality at all.

The album’s sound is of its time. It’s got some badly dated synths, and it’s full of that awful 80s drum sound. But, I don’t care. The songs are strong enough to push through that.

I could go on for thousands of words about all of the reasons why I adore this album. But, ultimately, it comes down to this: Hounds of Love is an album full of feelings. In stark opposition to Bush’s image as an alienating, eccentric figure, Hounds reaches out and makes the effort to connect.

I have no idea whether or not it’ll connect with you. I hope so. I hope it knocks that impassive facade of yours clean off. I want to see waterworks, Meuse.

But, either way, this is what all the fuss is about. Now you know.

— Matthew