Friday, October 23, 2020

Bee Gees Odessa

Despite what may be the most lavish LP cover in rock history, a velour sleeve in a deep red stamped in gold with the album's title and band name, the Bee Gees' epic was nonetheless doomed from the get-go. Fans had grown accustomed to the psych-pop of Idea and 1st and had gobbled up hits like "Holiday," but for this, they merely scratched their heads. Indeed the Gibb brothers themselves derided producer Robert Stigwood for browbeating them into such a grandiose venture, despite the infighting that had them disagree on everything else.

My grandmother worked for a psychiatrist as a housekeeper in 1969. She'd take me at times to their home, a beautiful mid-century modern structure with a bright red door, a pool and a guesthouse. I'd play with the dogs, dalmatians; she'd give me lunch in a bright red kitchen, and then she'd let me sit in the son's room and play his records. One of those records was Odessa. I liked the look and feel of it, the soft velvet – the music, not so much (it was on that same day that I first heard Tommy as well). I never owned Odessa. Years later I'd picked it up in a record store bin and put it back down. A mint copy is today on my bucket list.

As the years sailed by, the fearless ambition of Odessa became more difficult to dismiss. Like sonic landmarks with similar histories – Pet Sounds, Forever Changes – Odessa finds its authors amid personal crisis while working at the absolute peak of their powers. Capping a furious two-year whirlwind in which the group produced four albums and half-a-dozen Top 40 singles, arguments over Odessa's production, coupled with an exhausting schedule, created a battle between Barry and Robin Gibb for the leadership of the group. Though they finally reconvened in 1971, they never again produced a work as focused and affecting as Odessa.

This was the Bee Gees' fourth album of all-original material in just over 18 months and a double LP at that. Odessa may be the pinnacle of "baroque-pop," with its lush string arrangements and lavish production. It starts and ends quite remarkably, opening with the 7-minute epic title track and closing with the instrumental "The British Opera." If it sounds pretentious, you bet, but keep in mind that it was recorded in the days when pretension was called ambition (think Let It Be). That said, not everything works. The album's two excursions to the wild west failed to move me and few critics find the necessity in the instrumentals (I like them). Far better are the last vestiges of the silly-psychedelia the band permitted themselves, which made their first two albums such fun, namely "Edison", "Suddenly" and "Whisper Whisper."

Elsewhere they settle into solid balladry including the remarkably candid "I Laugh In Your Face" and "You'll Never See My Face Again", the should-have-been-a-hit "Lamplight" and the yearning "Never Say Never Again". The two singles, both nearly child-like in their simplicity and far from chart-toppers, "First Of May" and "Melody", fail to stand out in the good company here. Odessa spawned a family feud over whose song should get to be a single which escalated into a two-year hiatus. After that, the brothers were never the same again as they struggled to reinvent themselves for the new decade. Of course they did, and spectacularly, somewhere out on the dance-floor, but that is a whole different discussion.

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