The Zombies: Odessey and Oracle (pt. 2)

zombiesodyssey

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)

zombiesodyssey

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