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Classic of the Week

November 17, 1994|MIKE BOEHM

The Zombies

"Odessey and Oracle" (1968)

Rhino

In quality, if not fame, "Odessey and Oracle" ranks as one of the peak examples of '60s pop-rock, a worthy peer of any album issued by the Beatles, the Beach Boys or the Kinks.

The Zombies first made their mark with two British Invasion hits from '64-65, "She's Not There" and "Tell Her No." By 1967, the two songwriters, keyboard player Rod Argent and bassist Chris White, had decided to disband the Zombies in favor of a new group, Argent. "Odessey and Oracle" was, as Argent wrote in the notes to Rhino's 1987 reissue, conceived as "a parting gesture . . . a very personal final album" to be recorded free of careerist considerations." Score one for artistic purity: The album not only is a rich trove of melody, harmony, lyrical intelligence, adventurous song-arranging and the twin-tower brilliance of Argent's instrumental work and breathy-voiced Colin Blunstone's now-breezy, now passionate singing, but it yielded a monster hit single, "Time of the Season." True to their intentions, the Zombies didn't use the hit as an excuse to weasel out of their commitment to disband (nor did they explain why they had planted a deliberate misspelling in the album's title).

The Zombies' willingness to run free with their imaginations yielded a song collection of wide thematic scope. Instead of a standard missing-the-girl scenario, they give us "Care of Cell 44," in which a forgiving Blunstone breathlessly awaits the release of his jailed amour. "A Rose for Emily" loosely takes its inspiration from a classic short story by William Faulkner, leaving out the macabre elements of the original as it offers a delicate portrait of a lonely old woman crippled and sustained by pride. "Butcher's Tale (Western Front 1914)" is unsparing in its depiction of war's horrors. It is one of the greatest anti-war songs in the rock canon; Blunstone struggles to keep control of his trembling, contorted voice as he spills forth the fear and anger of a man who knows what it is to be reduced to cannon fodder and knows whom to blame for it.

Elsewhere the Zombies conjure sultry sensuality or evoke, hauntingly, the luminous comforts and deep aches that attend both loving and remembering. It all makes "Odessey and Oracle" one of the great pleasures available to fans of ambitious pop, an album that truly does stand beyond time and beyond season.

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