Odessa - Bee Gees

  Odessa - Bee Gees
  3 CD Deluxe Edition

  4.5 out of 5 stars
  Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

Scoff if you will at the idea that the same group who popularized dreaded disco, made leisure suits and chains de rigueur and turned John Revolta into a household name could produce an album that was both a sensitive and substantive masterpiece. But way back in 1968, before the Vienna Choir Boys days of "Stayin' Alive," Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb had so much talent and creativity they fashioned a breathtaking two-record set without breaking a sweat.

In celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the release of "Odessa," Rhino Records has given the Brothers Gibbs' fourth album the royal treatment. The original double LP has been expanded to three CDs: stereo and mono versions of the 17-song release adorn discs one and two, while the third disc, "Sketches For Odessa," includes 22 unreleased demos, alternate mixes and a pair of tracks recorded during the sessions that weren't on the original album. The reissue also restores the album's red flocked cover (with the group's name in gold lettering), and adds a nifty Bee Gees sticker, a poster, and a booklet chronicling the sessions written by rock historian Andrew Sandoval. Watch out, kids -- don't do what I did and scratch the velvet cover trying to open up the box!

Recorded at New York's Atlantic Recording Studios, "Odessa" has been compared in stature to The Beatles' "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart's Club Band," and in length to the Fab Four's "White Album," so you know its borderline genius. "Odessa" was originally entitled "The American Opera" - but the addition of distinctly international compositions such as "Melody Fair" and "Lamplight" cancelled that thought.  It was renamed "Masterpeace" until cooler heads prevailed. Heavily orchestrated and arranged to represent a conceptual work, "Odessa" was both the brothers' artistic triumph and their Waterloo. Feeling underutilized and wanting to pursue a more bluesy direction, lead guitarist Vince Melouney had quit the group after "Idea," the Bee Gee's third album, but stayed long enough to work on "Odessa's" "Marley Purt Drive" and "Whisper, Whisper." Middle brother Robin, peeved that Barry's track "First of May" was chosen as the first single over his song, "Lamplight," also quit the group in a snit. Robin's departure halted the release of other songs from the album as singles, which cut into sales. Stifled by acrimony and jealousy, it would be two years before the brothers would record together again, releasing the album "2 Years On," and the single "Lonely Days."

The album gets off to a rocky start with the title track, "Odessa (City on the Black Sea)." It's overblown and fractured, a baroque "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" without the enlightening factoids. It's an experimental, reaching track, with swatches of flamenco meets Dr. Zhivago music that tells the story of tells the fictional story of the sole survivor of the British ship Veronica, who's floating alone on an iceberg in the Baltic Sea. It's reminiscent of the group's extraordinary "Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Hearted Man Will Show You" (minus the monks chanting in the foreground). The mistake is having Robin sing lead. To keep peace within the group, it was decreed that lyricist and lead twin Robin would take the mike more often (Maurice, the group's multi-instrumentalist, was his other half). In this case, it's a mistake. As I've noted in the past, rickety Robin has a quivering tone that at its worst resembles a sheep in heat or Stevie Nicks bleating as she twirls in a death spiral. (Perhaps Robin was Nicks' dad.) Robin's wobbly warble propelled "I Started A Joke" because you believed every teary note, and his voice would later roar with reckless authority in "Lion In Winter" on the brothers' 1971 album "Trafalgar." But Robin's shaky sniveling is a major drawback in "Odessa," and anyone listening to the album for the first time is likely to press the eject button. Don't give up, kids! "Odessa (City on the Black Sea)" is a failure, but it's an elegant one, and the more you listen to the first track, the more you'll be able to pick out some brilliant elements, including the lacquered strings and layered Russian winter back up vocals.

The album thrusts off its pompous start with "You'll Never See My Face Again," one of the deceptively complex pop gems the Bee Gees could create seemingly at will. An acoustic-based number with luxurious strings and Barry (thankfully) singing lead, "You'll Never See My Face Again" brings to mind the easy going, immaculately produced ballads released by The Hollies in the 70s.

"Black Diamond" is another Robin lead vocal, but this time there's no need to run for cover. It's a sterling example of how effective Robin could be whenever he tempered his urge to baa like a sheared sheep. A country-flavored tune in the over the top tradition of Conway Twitty or Ferlin Husky (maybe not, I just like saying his name), "Black Diamond" shines thanks to Barry's soaring back ups and Maurice's thick bass line.

Whenever Bee Gees greatest hits packages from the early years are released, "Marley Purt Drive" is usually one of the cuts. It's down-home country blues that's kin to The Band's "The Weight,' with punctuating stick work from Colin Petersen and an authentic breeze of bluegrass on banjo from Bill Keith (The Kweskin Jug Band). "Marley Purt Drive" provides a lesson in repetition: if you're going to sing the first verse again, do something to make it more interesting! The Bee Gees wisely pushed the strings up front in the third verse, building on the melody. But the best part is listening to three Australians sound like downtrodden hillbillies -- and succeeding. "'Cause with fifteen kids and a family on the skids, I gotta go for a Sunday drive."

"Edison" splits the vocal chores between combatants Barry and Robin. Its turn of the century approach is novel, and there are some attention-grabbing effects that make the tune sound like a spiraling carousel, but it's not a great history lesson. The line "Edison came to stay" is repeated until you feel like flipping the switch on an electric chair and ending it all. As Robin says at the end of the demo of the song on disc 3, "He's a bloody pain in the neck to me, that man!"  

The dull wattage of "Edison" is forgotten when the listener hears the first melancholy notes of "Melody Fair," one of the most striking and sentimental pieces the brothers ever recorded. It's unabashedly romantic, thanks to Bill Shepard's orchestral score, and the multi-tiered vocals between Barry and Maurice will sweep you back to a time when parlors, daisies and doilies reigned: "Who is the girl with the crying face, looking at millions of signs. She knows that life is a running race, her face shouldn't show any lines."

Despite its slightly abrasive acoustic opening (which quickly morphs into some equally effective strumming), "Suddenly" is a humable, short lament with a rare lead by Maurice, who shares the spotlight with a dancing oboe. Despite being Robin's twin, Maurice's deep tones more resemble older brother Barry with few, and I mean few, perceptible differences. Too bad Mo didn't take more leads. Maurice sighs and snickers with more emotional latitude than one usually finds in a Bee Gees song, giving "Suddenly" an attractive playfulness. (For other gems sung by Mo, check out his self-effacing composition "Lay It On Me" on"2 Years On" or his downcast masterpiece "It's Just the Way" on "Trafalgar.")

With Petersen stomping out a bouncy Tin Pan Alley beat and the string section inspiring a gleeful sense of wonder, the first two-thirds of "Whisper, Whisper" is a bouncy, uplifting treat. Oddly, the final third of the song speeds up to the point where Barry can barely keep up, turning "Whisper" into bad vaudeville, but first part of "Whisper, Whisper" outweighs the junk wagon-out-of-control ending.

"Lamplight" is the song that broke the Bee Gees backs (for a couple of years anyway). It would have been interesting to see how this would have faired as a single. It's too bookish for the general public, too dependent on elements more suited for opera fans. It's got the type of dramatic doomsday arrangement made for Robin's frantic expression. Opening in French with a melody that sounds like Parisian freedom fighters gathered to sing a patriotic anthem, "Lamplight" gushes with elegance: "Lamplight keep on burning, while this heart of mine is yearning. Lamplight keep on burning, till this love of yours is mine."

If "Lamplight" was Robin's chance to stretch out his warbley style, then the piano/string drama of "Sound of Love" is Barry's. "Sound of Love" commences with a stark piano background before a surprising shot of soul pushes it into Dusty Springfield/Dionne Warwick's expressive territory.

Barry: It's a square dance Mister Marshall; it's a square dance on the floor.
Robin: It's a square dance Mister Perkins; it's a square dance to be sure.

With that sprightly spoken intro, "Give Your Best" perks up the proceedings with another taste of the Bee Gees goin' up the country. This time it's by way of Appalachia with Bill Keith back on banjo and Tex Logan flyin' on fiddle. It's very much like Ringo's "Don't Pass Me By" - shuckin,' irreverent fun. The Bee Gees didn't always assay country correctly, but this is one of their best, and it was polished off in one happy-go-lucky take.

"Odessa" is fleshed out with three instrumental pieces honchoed by Maurice. The first and best, "Seven Seas Symphony" is orchestral opulence, with cracking cymbals, rolling tympani, and a haunting touch on the keys by Maurice. "Seven Seas" would have been a great theme song for soap operas like "As the World Turns" or "Days of Our Lives." If you don't like classical music (and I really don't), this may change your mind, or at least put it at ease.

The brothers intended to write lyrics for "With All Nations (International Anthem)" but left it as an instrumental that could have graced a coronation.  (The Gibbs eventually did write out some lyrics. A vocal version is on the third disc. How's that for thorough?) The closing theme, "The British Opera" is a lush companion piece to "Seven Seas Symphony."

"Odessa" ends strongly, with three of its best songs. "I Laugh In Your Face" is boosted by the brother's trademark three part harmonies, a predatory beat, and vindictive lyrics that hint at their dislike of someone in their camp (at this point, perhaps each other). "Never Say Never Again" has a breezy, swaying sing-a-long format, and a curious lyric: "If you said goodbye, I'd declare war on Spain, never say never again."      

"First of May" is the album's most instantly recognizable song, a wistful, stark ballad with Barry alone on vocals, accompanied by a lonesome piano and enveloping strings: "But you and I, our love will never die, but guess who cried, come first of may."  Don't let the fact that it was written to commemorate the birthday of Barry's dog get in the way of your having a good cry!

Bonus Bee Gees

The third disc contains early demos of the album's cuts as well as two unreleased songs, "Nobody's Someone," and "Pity." Lyrically, "Nobody's Someone" is a bit simpering, like one of those lovelorn songs Davy Jones used to sing with The Monkees, but musically, with Barry on 12-string and Maurice on bass it would have fit right in with the rest of the album. "Pity" is slighter, with a bobbing beat by Petersen. It's an obvious work in progress, but it's still catchy, with the same vaudevillian appeal as "Whisper, Whisper."

For Bee Gee-o-files, disc three holds the keys to the kingdom. You'll be surprised to hear the evolutionary process of many of the songs, particularly "Lamplight," which was first recorded with a marching beat; "Never Say Never," which thankfully lost its obnoxious fuzz guitar feedback, and "Melody Fair," inconceivably demoed with a bouncing beat similar to The Spinner's "Rubberband Man!" The one piece that seems to have taken a step backward is "Odessa (City on the Black Sea)" which was originally conceived with a more historically accurate narration by Barry that better explained the song (and the album), and also had a prominent role for Maurice on Mellotron. The less cluttered approach gave Robin more of a chance to be heard and slowed the piece down, making it more cohesive. It's also interesting to hear that "Edison" started out as "Barbara Came To Stay." Too bad the low voltage story of Thomas A. supplanted the story of a broken love affair.

The Beatles' closest competitors in the mid-sixties singles market were the Dave Clark Five, who faltered when the Fab Four initiated a change from two minute pop singles to four minute psychedelic mini-operas. The Rolling Stones went with the flow, copying The Beatles' every move, which has allowed them to survive to this day. The Bee Gees managed to shadow The Beatles' success in the singles market and as their first self-titled album and "Odessa" illustrate, they could also make a strong showing on the album front.

"Odessa" is an unsung gem, a chance to listen to The Bee Gees when they were inspired writers and celebrated singers, before all the jive talkin'.



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