Friday, May 28, 2021

Zombies 2: Odessey & Oracle

Despite constant recording and touring, the Zombies weren’t able to ride the success of their first hit singles. Unbowed, they put their all into the ambitiously titled Odessey & Oracle, which ultimately broke up the band.

While the title and matching cover art reflected the psychedelic Summer of Love, the music was merely well-crafted, straightforward pop, built again mostly around Rod Argent’s keyboards, embellished by harmonies clearly influenced by that other cult classic Pet Sounds, and the Mellotrons left lying around at Olympic and EMI’s Abbey Road studios. The songs themselves, written separately by Argent and Chris White but perfectly matched, reflected the shift from mindless pop to near literature, as befit any band trying to compete in the marketplace with the likes of the Beatles and the Kinks.

From the start, these aren’t your ordinary love songs. “Care Of Cell 44” is a musical love letter to someone about to be released from prison, and it’s never stated what the inmate’s gender is. It’s positively infectious from start to finish, and the repeats of the “feel so good you’re coming home soon” hook never get tiring. Inspired by the macabre William Faulkner short story, the chamber pop arrangement of “A Rose For Emily” is fitting. Using an acoustic guitar for a change, the contrasting minor and major keys of “Maybe After He’s Gone” effectively reflect its lyrics, and a Leslie effect on the electric provides “Beechwood Park” with its own shade. The parlor sound on each verse of “Brief Candles” transforms to living color for each chorus before returning, and we really like how the guitar is paired with the Mellotron throughout “Hung Up On A Dream”.

Vinyl is a good way to experience the album, as the flute setting of the Mellotron dominates “Changes”, luckily balanced by the harmonies on the choruses, and tension between. The most Beatlesque track is the jaunty “I Want Her, She Wants Me”, with a prominent bass line wandering precisely underneath the dancing harpsichord. The joyful hope continues on “This Will Be Our Year”, though we prefer the mix without the horns. If anything might derail the listener’s enjoyment, “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)” is a harrowing antiwar song set in the first World War, a common fascination for British musicians of the time. Sung with suitable quivering by Chris White, it made for an unlikely single. “Friends Of Mine” returns the mood to sunny, as the narrator celebrates all the happy couples in his life, the backing vocals even reciting their names. Finally, “Time Of The Season” manages to be a musical progression for the band, while still evoking the cool of “She’s Not There”, with those sighing call-and-response vocals and a virtuosic organ solo.

It’s fitting that the album ends with the song that ultimately got the album onto the charts. The omnipresent Al Kooper was doing A&R for Columbia Records at the time, found Odessey & Oracle in a stack of import LPs, and spearheaded its American release. Its subsequent success prompted the suits to get the band to record a follow-up, and they tried, but Colin Blunstone had already quit the business and the remaining members were already morphing into Argent. (Once again, the Zombie Heaven box set nicely fills in the blanks.)

Over the years Odessey & Oracle became one of those relatively obscure records touted by rock snobs as a lost classic. Depending on how sick you were of hearing “Time Of The Season” on oldies stations, newcomers could be justifiably skeptical. But it truly is a grower, we’re lucky to have it in the world. It’s been reissued several times in the digital age, usually with bonus tracks like those later singles, sometimes with the mono and stereo versions together. (We lean towards the mono ourselves.)

The Zombies Odessey & Oracle (1968)—

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Zombies 1: The Zombies

The so-called British Invasion following the Beatles brought a deluge of pop combos to American airwaves, and given the precedent of the Fab Four, wacky names abounded. The Zombies, however, were neither a Merseybeat group nor an R&B outfit trying to grab the brass ring while clad in matching suits and sporting moptop haircuts. For one, the band was driven not by guitars but largely by main songwriter Rod Argent’s electric piano. Colin Blunstone had a predominantly breathy voice that could leap into a shriek on command. Harmonies abounded.

True to the American tradition of chopping up British LPs and leaning on the hits, The Zombies cherrypicked from their native debut Begin Here, adding a few leftovers from B-sides and EPs, and gave key attention to the two smash hits written by Argent. “She’s Not There” came first, and takes the opening spot on side one. Despite its sophisticated arrangement, in each chorus there’s a wonderfully audible gasp of an inhale that most producers would have been quick to fix. “Tell Her No” wasn’t as big, its use of Bacharach-style major-seventh chords have vaulted it as a major classic, and one of the gems of the era. Beyond those, “It’s Alright With Me” begins as a generic dance number with a riff and ascending chords, but throws a curve ball at the end of the second verse by slowing down the tempo, then diving into a top-speed piano solo. Similarly, “Sometimes” begins one way, then chugs along over a Vox organ for aural variety. “Woman” lets guitarist Paul Atkinson play the riff.

Argent wasn’t the only band member holding his head up (yeah, we went there) in the songwriting department. Bassist Chris White offered up the musically intricate “I Don’t Want To Know” and the tongue-tripping “What More Can I Do”. “Work ‘n’ Play” is an instrumental credited to their producer, and throws in a few unexpected changes under the harmonica.

Everybody covered Motown in those days, but their take on “You Really Got A Hold On Me” gets a twist by getting attached to Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me” in a medley. “Can’t Nobody Love You” was borrowed from Solomon Burke, and the Gershwins’ “Summertime” is taken as a waltz showing off their chops. That’s not to say they couldn’t hold their own in a club, as demonstrated by their stomp through “I Got My Mojo Working”, led by Hugh Grundy demolishing the drums.

Even two-hit wonders had trouble keeping momentum in the face of shifting PR strategies, so it was years before more of the band’s work was properly heard in context. The comprehensive Zombie Heaven box set collects all the songs here as well as on singles, EPs, plus of course the British album, showing off what the band actually could offer if only anyone had heard them. They did put their all into a grand hurrah of sorts, and we’ll discuss that in due time.

The Zombies The Zombies (1965)—3

Friday, May 21, 2021

Genesis 20: Turn It On Again

Barely a year after Phil Collins had compiled his own hits collection, Genesis got one of their own. Turn It On Again: The Hits sticks very close to that premise, with half of the program devoted to songs from Invisible Touch and We Can’t Dance. (Hey, it says “hits” right in the title, not “best of”.)

The compilers do their best with the space left over, and the first few tracks do provide something of a balance via the “title” track and “Mama”, which, like several selections here, is presented in its radio edit. We get a handful of further songs from the ‘80s, with “Follow You Follow Me” and “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” the only selections from the ‘70s. The stillborn “Congo” from Calling All Stations is something of a middle finger, only slightly offset by the one “new” track. “The Carpet Crawlers 1999” is a re-recording including the five members of the “classic” lineup, with Steve Hackett getting to add lots more guitar and Phil prominently harmonizing with Peter Gabriel, before taking over the last verse all his own. (Rumor has it the original plan was to have Ray Wilson sing a verse, but he was no longer in the band when they finally got around to recording, so tough bananas on him.)

Longtime Genesis fans would have had all the original albums anyway, but when Phil Collins returned in 2007 for a reunion tour, Turn It On Again: The Hits was expanded to two discs and subtitled The Tour Edition. This time, after starting with that “title” song, they followed the reverse chronological template of 2004’s three-disc Platinum Collection, going backwards from the We Can’t Dance material, adding “Tell Me Why” from that album for some reason. “Illegal Alien” plus further songs from Abacab filled out the picture, while the second disc did a better job of sampling the ‘70s, with such rarities as “Happy The Man” and two tracks from the Spot The Pigeon EP. It’s still a little light on Peter Gabriel, but again, we’re talking hits here. (“The Carpet Crawlers 1999” closed the first disc, while “Congo” was stuck all the way at the end of the second, after the single edit of “The Knife”.)

Genesis Turn It On Again: The Hits (1999)—
2007 Tour Edition: same as 1999, plus 16 extra tracks

Friday, May 14, 2021

Marshall Crenshaw 11: This Is Easy

Certain artists have that first album that’s so solid that the idea of a greatest hits album almost seems redundant. The Cars and the Pretenders come to mind, but in Marshall Crenshaw’s case, where his later albums never had the legs of his first, a hits album is an opportunity to show people what they might be missing.

Being the good curators they’d always been, the Rhino label went for the one-two punch, by expanding his stellar debut simultaneously with compiling a best-of. This Is Easy! offered an unbeatable chronological sequence of his finest ear candy. Opening with the early wide-eyed single “Something’s Gonna Happen”, it moves through only four songs from the debut, and includes the “You’re My Favorite Waste Of Time” B-side. Field Day and Downtown each get four songs, and the balance of his studio albums get smaller but choice samples, right up to “Starless Summer Sky” from 1996.

Those two singles are the only real rarities, but since many of the albums had gone out of print by then, This Is Easy! very conveniently revived songs that had been lost to indifference. Some even appeared in their single edits, which guaranteed that the disc was filled to capacity. In fact, Rhino’s double disc The Definitive Pop Collection six years later expanded the program by a mere eight songs, tacking on a few more recent tracks but also adding “Cryin’, Waitin’, Hopin’” from 1987’s La Bamba soundtrack. And for all the different producers and players involved, everything goes together like they were meant to be.

Marshall Crenshaw This Is Easy! The Best Of Marshall Crenshaw (2000)—4

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Todd Rundgren 25: No World Order

Ever the technophile, Todd Rundgren leapt into the possibilities of interactive music by offering his compositions as a series of files that could be programmed, sampled, and manipulated by any listener with the technology (read: cash) and the patience to handle it. For those who would rather hear his latest music as complete songs, a non-interactive version of No World Order was designed to suffice, though still credited to his TR-i moniker. With 16 tracks, six of which were alternate versions, this was still presented as an uninterrupted program, to encourage the shuffle play function on the listener’s CD player to encourage random and infinite variations of the sequence. (A year later, Rhino released No World Order Lite, which stuck to the ten songs, though it didn’t recoup their losses much.)

All of this makes a simple recap of the musical content more difficult than usual, since the music was designed to be fluid. With the exception of his voice and guitars, the accompaniment is largely computer-generated for a very sterile atmosphere. Luckily, “Worldwide Epiphany” is tuneful and rocking, though his rap detour (not the only one here) shows a debt to Public Enemy. “Day Job” is delivered in a Chuck D bark, punctuated by some berserk samples, but while “Fascist Christ” is more direct and topical, it’s hard to take him seriously. “Love Thing” is new jack swing two years after Bell Biv Devoe’s peak, whereas “Property” has a “Billie Jean” bounce. By the time the title track comes around the rap approach has become tiresome, and it goes on to derail “Proactivity”. However, “Word Made Flesh” brings back the rock for a potential anthem, and “Time Stood Still” and “Fever Broke” display more of his own classic brand of soul music.

While No World Order isn’t made for casual listening, Todd still displays his expert grasp on production and songwriting throughout. Maybe somebody out there has the capability to remix the tunes, dilute the raps, and update the dated textures into something more approachable. But then, doesn’t that negate the point of the exercise?

Todd Rundgren/TR-i No World Order (1993)—

Friday, May 7, 2021

Roxy Music 7: Manifesto

The boys in Roxy Music got their side projects out of their system, and restarted the band without any agenda outside of making music. Gone were the camp affectations and ironic nostalgia; with Manifesto they were all about style and what would soon be called new romantic.

Side one, or the “East Side”, and the title track slowly burble into place underneath a solo by rotating bass player Alan Spenner over a near-disco beat. Bryan Ferry’s lyric is kinda poetic, and the track comes to a surprising finish like, well, a spaceship taking off. “Trash” is right in line with current new wave, thanks to a cheesy organ. “Angel Eyes” would be re-recorded in a more dance vein, but the original album version is a lot more rock, and a lot more fun, honestly. “Still Falls The Rain” is a pleasant trifle, with all the Roxy ingredients in place, while “Stronger Through The Years” has something of a sinister undercurrent, and lots of further input from Alan Spenner.

The “West Side” is a little more direct, or is it? “Ain’t That So” seems to be bouncing in and out of different tempos, throwing out a melodic twist here and there that bucks the simplicity of the chorus, which consists of repetitions of the title. Except for the prominent Andy Mackay saxophone, “My Little Girl” sports harmonies right off the latest Cars album and a snare sound akin to somebody kicking a garbage can. “Dance Away” is an apt portrait of heartache, but it took a remix for the single to rearrange the structure and tighten up the track. Unfortunately, “Cry, Cry, Cry” is meaningless pop, though Phil Manzanera does give his all to his solos. The theme of dancing away heartache returns on “Spin Me Round”, ending the album rather softly.

The title may have been meant to be ironic, since Manifesto isn’t the grand statement their earlier albums seemed to be. They’re merely doing what Roxy Music collectively did well. For other people this might be considered treading water, but in this case it works. (Fun fact: after “Angel Eyes” and “Dance Away” were respectively re-recorded and remixed as singles, the new versions replaced the originals on future pressings of the album, as well as the compact disc. When the CD was remastered in 1999, the original “Angel Eyes” was reinstated, but “Dance Away” was not. Both were sound decisions.)

Roxy Music Manifesto (1979)—3