BEE GEES: ODESSA (1969)
1) Odessa (City On The Black Sea); 2) You'll Never See My Face Again; 3) Black Diamond; 4) Marley Purt Drive; 5) Edison; 6) Melody Fair; 7) Suddenly; 8) Whisper, Whisper; 9) Lamplight; 10) Sound Of Love; 11) Give Your Best; 12) Seven Seas Symphony; 13) With All Nations; 14) I Laugh In Your Face; 15) Never Say Never Again; 16) First Of May; 17) The British Opera.
«Fourteenth of February, eighteen ninety-nine, the British ship Veronica was lost without a sign...» Rhyming apart, this introduction line reads more like the start of some Jules Verne adventure novel than that of a pop record by one of The Former British Empire's sissiest bands. But in the magic year of 1969 everything was possible — and with concept albums being all the rage, particularly when stretched over two LPs, the Bee Gees needed their own answer to The Beatles (Tommy still had a few months to ripen).
Granted, the «literal» concept begins and ends with the title track, a seven-and-a-half minute suite that runs through several sections, several moods, a bunch of sound effects, and a mystery that pulls your leg hard enough to create the impression of the band being «really on to something» when they really aren't — in fact, rumor has it that the original title of the song was ʽOdessa (City On The White Sea)ʼ, and the endless references to «Baltic Sea» and «North Atlantic» in the lyrics show that, perhaps, the band has not fully mastered its geography even by the end of the sessions. Furthermore, there are no Vicars in Odessa, and it is not that easy for Odessa people to move to Finland (not in 1899, it wasn't), but never mind all that — if the Bee Gees require artistic licence, it would be prudent to grant them artistic licence before they take offense at our nitpicking and start singing ʽNights On Broadwayʼ instead.
In any case, Odessa is very much a concept album if the «concept» is not understood in a «rock opera» sort of way. If 1st and, to a slightly lesser extent, Horizontal were planned as exuberant potpourris, with the Gibbs taking a sprint through the musical candy shop and swiping off bits of everything, and Idea was an intentional balladeering «sellout» to clear their heads from excessive psychedelia, then Odessa, the last and most ambitious of the band's Sixties' adventures, is a huge romantic sprawl, penetrating your subconscious with the help of bombastic strings and multi-tracked harmonies rather than fuzzy guitar tones, distorted vocal effects, Mellotrons, sitars, and references to lemon trees, orange skies, and Lucies with diamonds.
Formally, it is like a test — is it possible to make a genuinely «cool» sixty-minute experience with the aid of nothing but fully traditional, «conservative» means? You do not even seriously need any electricity to play the Odessa stuff — acoustic guitars, pianos and strings dominate most of the proceedings: Vince Melouney quit the band in frustration after having recorded a few of the songs, understanding that his services (as the band's resident electric guitar player) are no longer needed. (Colin Petersen, the drummer, still held on throughout). With echoes of Idea's occasionally excessive sweetness still fresh in the ears, this could all spell disaster.
And it did spell disaster, but only on the real-life level: the recording of Odessa caused a major split within the band — Robin and Barry ended up fighting both over the musical directions to take and over the «leadership» issue: the somewhat dictatorial elder brother was being challenged by the somewhat more adventurous (at the time) younger brother, and there was a serious row concerning the lead single from the album. Barry won in the end, with his ʽFirst Of Mayʼ fixed as the A-side and Robin's ʽLamplightʼ relegated to the B-side — but at the cost of Robin calling it quits and effectively bringing the first stage of the Bee Gees to a close. (And yes, in the light of what would follow, many people would probably be happy if the first stage were to be the last stage — but what difference would it make if ʽStayin' Aliveʼ were credited to «Barry Gibb» rather than «The Bee Gees»?)
As for the artistic level, Odessa is a total success. Yes, it is made up of lush ballads from head to toe, with a small bunch of acoustic pop and country-rockers thrown in for diversity's sake — but this is definitely «art» balladry, with complex, intelligent, meticulously crafted harmonic hooks and equally complex orchestral arrangements: easily Bill Shepherd's finest hour with the band (Paul Buckmaster, who would go on to famously orchestrate Elton John's early albums, may be noticed here among the credits, playing cello on the title track — however, as far as I can tell, he is not responsible for the arrangements in general; rather, he was probably soaking in the experience in order to begin profiting from it just one year later). It is Bill Shepherd, by the way, who is responsible for the only few psychedelic twists we get — the Mid-Easternish violin «swoops» on ʽYou'll Never See My Face Againʼ, for instance, are quite trippy.
There are no highlights and no lowlights. This is not a «cathartic» experience: be it Barry's «knight in shining armor» approach, or Robin's «green-clad lyre-stringin' minstrel» impersonation, both, as usual, suffer from mannerisms and theatricality — it is as hard for me to imagine anybody (anybody I know, that is) driven to tears by this stuff as it is to picture anybody's eyes watering to the sounds of a Diane Warren power ballad. But hopping from song to song on Odessa easily affects the same nerve centers as those responsible for, say, responding to a visit to some old Dutch masters' gallery. The colors. The vividness. The little details. The unpredictability of all the twists and turns within what, at first, seems to be a rather limited-formula model. It's a case where, at first, you seem to think of a «triumph of form over substance», then begin to realize that there is no difference between form and substance here — form is substance, and substance is form. (Granted, one could say the same about the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, but the form-substance duality of 1977 and the form-substance duality of 1969 are two entirely different things, aren't they?).
Each of the songs does work on its own, but Odessa is still much more than the sum of its parts. There are some recurrent motifs — mostly on the instrumental compositions such as ʽSeven Seas Symphonyʼ and ʽBritish Operaʼ — and with quality control in complete effect, each subsequent song somehow builds up on the legacy of its predecessor, stockpiling the «formalistic beauty» in your memory until it reaches the «grandiose» mark. Actually, Odessa is a bit short for a double album — barely over sixty minutes, where The Beatles ran over ninety — but that helps it minimize or even totally eliminate «filler»: ʽNever Say Never Againʼ on the last side echoes ʽYou'll Never See My Face Againʼ on the first side as a full-time respectable partner rather than an inferior re-write to pad out the remaining space.
In the past, I used to strongly favor Barry's material over Robin's — his «knightly» deliveries, sometimes with a bit of irony and always with a strong debt of gratitude to the Beatles, seemed to agree much better with my tastes than Robin's increasingly «bleating» minstrel-boy vibrato, here demonstrated most perfectly on songs like the title track, ʽBlack Diamondʼ, and ʽLamplightʼ (in general, Barry has more leads here than Robin, which is not surprising given the circumstances). But today, there is no question in my mind that ʽBlack Diamondʼ is an absolute vocal masterpiece — there is probably no other song in the Bee Gees catalog that would pull all the stops in the same way (stuff like ʽMr. Naturalʼ is quite unique, too, but it leaves less space for subtle variations, whereas on ʽBlack Diamondʼ, few lines are sung the exact same way). And if we accuse songs written in the shape of medieval folk ballads of mannerisms, well, the logical thing to do would be to follow up on that and extend the accusation to the medieval folk ballads themselves — the Bee Gees are simply honoring the time when real emotions had to be hidden behind a façade of «regulated» ones. So I just admire the «regulations» in Robin's voice when he is belting out his "...and I'm leaving in the morning... and I won't die, so don't cry..." as if Henry VIII and all of his eight wives were in the audience.
If lush orchestration, starched ruffs and doublets aren't really your thing, Odessa is not for you, but you might want to try out some of its more down-to-earth segments — ʽMarley Purt Driveʼ, for instance, an acoustic roots-rocker with a ringing lead vocal à la Hollies (who were doing very much the same thing in the late 1960s), or the light, upbeat, catchy country-rock ditty ʽGive Your Bestʼ, with the classical cellos and violins laid to rest in favor of a rustic fiddle, or the shuffling ʽSuddenlyʼ (although the latter does have some strings and woodwinds). Still, it's only a tiny fragment of the total amount of delicacies you get if you subscribe to the whole package — and I even like the instrumentals: ʽSeven Seas Symphonyʼ, as far as I'm concerned, is grander, more imposing and more memorable than any of the orchestral work on, for instance, the Moody Blues' Days Of Future Passed, often quoted as «the» textbook example of the neo-classical approach on a pioneering art-rock album.
Naturally, it is all a matter of the Zeitgeist. It was the musical context of the time that brought out the best in the Bee Gees, and stimulated them to work in a direction that does not look dated, cheesy, or ridiculous fourty years on — Odessa may still easily be revered, be it by only a tiny bunch of connaisseurs, long after the band's disco stuff has been buried and the gravestone weathered down. But nobody asks anybody to love Odessa because it is a Bee Gees album — the Bee Gees were one of those bands that let itself easily be blown about by the wind, and I love Odessa because it is an album blown in by the adventurous, extravagant wind of 1969, not because it materialized itself in the hands of three competitive, opportunistic, narcissistic singer brothers whose tastes and priorities, not fully evident behind the Zeitgeist of the late 1960s, would become more and more questionable with each new year. So, in a way, it is to that Zeitgeist that I dedicate the thumbs up rating — honorable second prize going to Barry, Robin, and Maurice, not forgetting Bill Shepherd and whoever else responsible.
PS. Being a double album, Odessa released the deluxe treatment over the course of the recent reissues — an entire 3-CD boxset, with stereo and mono mixes of the album and an extra CD of outtakes. I do not have the reissue: as far as I can tell, the majority of the tracks on the third disc are alternate mixes and demos, which might make it less of a necessity than the reissues of the previous three albums. Apparently, most of the stuff recorded during the Odessa sessions did make it onto the final record, and since there was only one single (ʽFirst Of Mayʼ), there were no extra juicy B-sides either. So, unless you are a major fan of red backgrounds with gold letters, you might want to hold off this time. Curiously enough, the Reprise Records routine of reissuing Bee Gees remasters with extra tracks broke down on Odessa — rather like the band itself.
Check "Odessa" (MP3) on Amazon