What’s That Sound?: One and Done

It hardly seems possible. One great album and you’re out? But far from impossible, there are actually way too many instances to cover in just one article. Some of these quick exits are attributed to tragedy, some to whimsy, irreconcilable differences, or plain bad luck. It’s a phenomenon that crosses boundaries of genre, era, nationality, and circumstance, but they all have this in common – these are albums you definitely want in your collection despite the short tenure of the bands and artists that made them.

Where to start? How about with one of my favorites:

“Same Thing” (The Grays)

Ro Sham Bo – the Grays [Apple Music, Spotify]

Starting with an invitation from Jon Brion to Jason Faulkner to an informal jam, The Grays weren’t even a band yet when Epic won a label bidding war and signed the 90s stealth supergroup (Brion and Faulkner were already established but virtually unknown to the public). Coming off of Faulkner’s bad experience as an underling in Jellyfish, The Grays were formed with a mutual agreement to be a non-hierarchical collective of the three muscular songwriters (Buddy Judge being the third) and drummer Dan McCarroll, later foundering as band on the same grounds, Jon Brion leaving first when Faulkner asserted himself as leader and producer Jack Joseph Puig backed him, giving him slightly more songs on the album. In this archived interview, Faulkner explains his mistreatment as a member of Jellyfish (starting around 51:00) and the rise and fall of The Grays (starting around 1:06:00). Coincidentally, The spark that started their association was Jon Brion hearing a cassette of The Zombies’ one real studio album, Odessey and Oracle that Faulkner had made for his girlfriend who worked the counter in a coffee shop, with Brion accosting her, demanding to know who made the tape (more on that brilliant album later).

Ro Sham Bo, the only album by The Grays, is extraordinarily good, despite the members never really gelling as a band (it sounds like a snapshot of three songwriters with the same stellar backing band). Buddy Judge holds his own with the two nascent powerhouses – Jason Faulkner would go on to a solo career (his outstanding debut, Artist Unknown is a 90s rock masterpiece) and Jon Brion would later release one solo album, Meaningless, long after becoming an in-demand producer for other artists (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Eels, Rufus Wainwright) as well as a distinctive film composer (Magnolia, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, among others). The album itself, Ro Sham Bo, is a treasure trove of hooks, guitar riffs and solos, deep grooves, vocal harmonies, and gutsy, opulent rock production influenced by Queen, The Beatles, and 70s power pop.

In retrospect, it’s obvious that The Grays were so overflowing with talent and ambition that the bounds of a rock band couldn’t hold them for more than a brief moment. Thankfully, we have this single document of their time together, and importantly, a mini-collection of Jon Brion-penned songs that I think are the best representations of his songcraft in his whole catalog. After a hopeful launch, Ro Sham Bo tanked and very quickly went out of print, but thanks to the wonder of streaming services, this forgotten gem from 1994 is back and available to everyone to enjoy – really, go check it out.

I’m already almost out of superlatives and I’m only through one entry!

Blind Faith – Blind Faith [Apple Music, Spotify]

“Sea of Joy” (Blind Faith)

In 1969, a similar fate befell the supergroup of three rock geniuses and one stalwart known as Blind Faith. But unlike Ro Sham Bo, Blind Faith’s one self-titled album actually sounds like a cohesive band with a unified sound, despite their brief tenure and a pretty diverse mix of material. This is partly due to Steve Winwood handling all of the lead vocals, but also because of the solid, roots-rock production style of Jimmy Miller (producer) and Andy Johns (mixer).

The idea for Blind Faith emerged soon after the demise of Cream, when Ginger Baker stopped by with his drums to Traffic’s rented cottage in Berkshire where Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton had been jamming (Traffic was on hold after the departure of co-leader Dave Mason). Inspired by what they were hearing as a unit, and despite Clapton’s misgivings about including Cream’s drummer just nine weeks after that group had split, Winwood successfully convinced him that their particular alchemy hinged on the unique creativity and musicianship of Ginger Baker and so, a new band was born. Announcements were made to the press, bassist Ric Grech was unceremoniously poached mid-tour from Family (a sort of UK sister band to Traffic, both being produced by Jimmy Miller and/or Dave Mason), the members of Traffic were notified that the band had been temporarily suspended, and the name “Blind Faith” was coined by Clapton, playing off of the high expectations surrounding their signing to Polydor. It would have made for sweet irony, but the one album they released in July of 1969 was actually wildly successful, rocketing to #1 on the pop album charts in both the US and UK, presumably all on the hype and excitement surrounding the group (the album didn’t feature anything like a hit song). Blind Faith did tour after the release of the album, but Clapton wanted to move on and the group fell apart.

From here, Winwood would lead a reformed Traffic and make the best, most cohesive album of his storied career in John Barleycorn Must Die. Clapton would soon form Derek and the Dominoes and create his own great masterwork (see below). This leaves Blind Faith a bit of a flash-in-the-pan, ultimately a little unsatisfying to listen to despite the high quality of musicianship and eclectic mix of excellent songs. I love hearing the Clapton-Winwood fusion of talent (I’m a total Steve Winwood fanboy) with Clapton as guitarist slotting himself so deftly into a band context (contrasting with the showy style of the Cream power trio concept). Ginger Baker has never played better as a rock drummer than here, in my opinion. His somewhat muted sound (probably due to tea towels draped over the drums) and always interesting beat patterns lends an evocative, slightly exotic quality to the proceedings, as does Ric Grech’s dual fiddle overdubs on “Sea of Joy.” Overall, Blind Faith shows a band of great potential and talent in its ascendancy. Each song is very different, each one sounding like a launch point, but whenever I play the 5-song single LP, which is often (it’s a great-sounding album from the heart of the rock era), I just want to hear more. That is an aspect of all of these “one and done” albums, I guess, but I feel it here very acutely.

“Bell Bottom Blues” (Derek and the Dominos)

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs – Derek and the Dominos [Apple Music, Spotify]

I don’t need to tell you how great this album is. Or maybe I do.

Eric Clapton, despite being a damned fine guitarist and songwriter, has long been a target of skepticism, derision, and outright scorn. Backlash to his mid-60s “Clapton is God” phase has since tagged him as a somewhat dubious figure, even with his undeniable influence on guitarists throughout the ensuing timeline of rock music. Racist comments and opposition to the COVID vaccine have rightly left him shunned by society, but perhaps the most devastating, often heard criticism of Eric Clapton is just that he’s a boring, superfluous, has-been that regurgitates blues cliches and puts out album after album of uninteresting material. Maybe that’s more than a bit true, but Clapton’s output at the very beginning of his career is vital, essential stuff, with the most interesting, emotionally committed work coming once he left the confines of the blues purism that fired his initial passion that made him such a forceful presence straight out of the gate.

Eric Clapton had never been entirely comfortable living in the spotlight. After sweating under the constant pressures of fame in Cream and then Blind Faith, Clapton chose instead to go on tour playing as a sideman in the southern rock outfit backing Delaney and Bonnie. There he met Jim Gordon, Carl Radle and Bobby Whitlock who, with Clapton, would form the core of Derek and the Dominos. After the tour, Delaney Bramlett served as producer on Eric Clapton, the guitarist’s self-titled debut as a solo artist, a good but somewhat measured album that sounds like Clapton standing in for Bramlett on a Delaney and Bonnie album (which makes sense given that Delaney co-wrote the majority of the songs, wrote the arrangements for his own band which provide the tracks, and even cut temporary vocal tracks for the album, which a mic-shy Clapton imitated for his own final vocals). All of this would serve as a good jumping off point for Clapton the confident singer and southern rock-inflected songwriter we next hear fronting the Dominos as Derek on their one studio album as a full-fledged group.

Work on the Layla album began with Clapton and Bobby Whitlock at Clapton’s country house in Surrey, England writing a batch of new songs on acoustic guitars and forming a tight friendship while the other Dominos, Jim Gordon and Carl Radle, were on tour with Joe Cocker. When that tour was over, the band descended on Criterion Studios in Miami to make an album with recording guru Tom Dowd in the producer chair (Dowd was there working on the Allman Brothers’ Idlewild South album). Clapton had never heard Duane play in person, so Dowd brought the band to an Allman Brothers show, after which Duane and Eric formed an immediate bond. And though Duane Allman declined an invitation to officially join the Dominos, the interplay of his slide guitar phrases with Clapton’s own fiery note-bending licks was the spark that ignited the ten-day set of sessions (Duane appears on all but three songs on the double album). Fueled by the pain of unrequited love, an assortment of drugs, and the spirit of newly formed friendships, the music is marked by gutsy passion, close harmonies (and a lot of dual lead vocals with Clapton trading with Whitlock), tightly worked-out arrangements, relaxed, organic playing, and a crop of great songs, the most well-known being the splendid title track (with its glorious coda), and the devastating plea for love, “Bell Bottom Blues.” Eric Clapton’s own playing and singing on the album is fully committed and brimming with the full gamut of human emotions.

The resulting album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs received a lot of acclaim and was according to Dowd, the best album he’d produced since The Genius of Ray Charles. Nevertheless, the album was doomed to commercial failure due to a lack of label promotion and the public being completely unaware that it was Eric Clapton fronting the band. The months following the release saw the death of first, Jimi Hendrix, and then Duane Allman, and Derek and the Dominos splintered. Clapton retreated to nurse a heroin addiction while the other members joined various recording projects and tours. Seemingly left behind in all of this was Bobby Whitlock, who, along with Duane Allman, was the musical catalyst for this singularly passionate work in the rock canon and one of the best one-off albums ever made. 

For further reading: Tom Dowd and the Recording of Layla

“Teacher Teacher” (Rockpile)

Seconds of Pleasure – Rockpile [Apple Music, Spotify]

Labour of Lust, Nick Lowe’s 1979 solo album and Repeat When Necessary by Dave Edmunds were recorded simultaneously, each having the three other members of Rockpile provide backing, but it wasn’t until 1980 that Rockpile made their own record as a band. The results are a fun, if somewhat variegated mix with Edmunds’ revivalist rockabilly flavor alternating with Lowe’s 70s humorous pub rock sensibility, even when guitarist Billy Bremner sings lead on two songs. Tightly focused and exuberant, Seconds of Pleasure makes for a fine companion to the aforementioned solo albums, as does the bonus dual-acoustic tribute EP that buyers of the Rockpile album found included, Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe Sing the Everly Brothers, which now streams directly after the 12-song original LP on all platforms.

Despite a fair showing (Seconds of Pleasure reached #51 on the Billboard 200 album chart), Rockpile packed it in after a short tour, the two co-leaders never being able to reconcile their very separate missions. Lowe’s next album, Nick the Knife, backed by Rockpile guitarist and drummer Billy Bremner and Terry Williams, displays the loose, humorous creativity and searching quality that contrasted with Edmunds’ rigid adherence to his rock and roll influences. In the ensuing years, Seconds of Pleasure has justifiably emerged as a true cult classic (it’s a great album), but it’s not hard to see why the Rockpile concept never could quite cohere and faded out after just one very enjoyable album.

“Wish I Was a Single Girl Again” (Tia Blake)

Tia Blake – Folksongs & Ballads [Apple Music, Spotify]

Some of these one-album wonders are true obscurities, but noteworthy and worth seeking out. This one from 1972 is pretty wonderful.

There’s just not a lot of information to be found on Christiana Wallman (stage name, Tia Blake). Born in Georgia, grew up in North Carolina, worked briefly for a New York publisher before moving to Paris at age 18 where she stumbled into a one-album recording contract for a tiny French imprint that usually specialized in free jazz. All you really need to know is in her gorgeous alto voice and in the relaxed, captivating versions of the folk songs we know and she reportedly learned from Peter, Paul, and Mary albums. Some alternate takes and later demos were included on the 2012 reissue of Folksongs and Ballads but the original 12-song album is simple, spellbinding, and as lovely as anything you’ll find in the folk genre. Highly recommended, sublime, beautiful stuff.

“Blues Run the Game” (Jackson C. Frank)

Jackson C. Frank – Jackson C. Frank [Apple Music, Spotify]

Another rare gem from the folk genre, this 1965 self-titled debut by the Buffalo-born singer-songwriter turned out to be his only release, but it’s a great one. Living off of a large insurance settlement after surviving a fire in his elementary school (which left most of his body covered in burns), Frank was already a songwriter of some note when he traveled to England and found himself rooming with just-signed to Columbia Records Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, who were living there briefly prior to scoring their first big hit, “The Sounds of Silence.”  Simon’s stay, playing in small clubs throughout England was pivotal (he wrote “Homeward Bound” waiting for a train in northwest England). In London, Simon co-wrote “Cloudy,” and “Red Rubber Ball” (a minor hit for The Cyrkle) with Bruce Woodley of The Seekers, and also produced the debut album of his London flatmate.

Ultimately known more as a songwriter (his songs would soon be covered by many, including Sandy Denny and Nick Drake, as well as Simon and Garfunkel themselves) Jackson C. Frank’s only album is the powerful statement of a blues-folk troubadour, infused with hard realism, the protestations of an old soul frustrated with the limits of modern life (the love blues “Kimbie” alternates deep affection for his girl with lines like “I wish I were a mole in the ground/If I were a mole in the ground/I’d tear this mountain down”). The opening track, “Blues Run the Game” was covered by a number of artists including Simon and Garfunkel, but nowhere is it delivered with more stark power and honesty than by the songwriter himself. Just his lone fingerpicked guitar and pained, dejected baritone voice, it’s no wonder that Paul Simon was so taken with his compatriot. Originally released only in England where it quickly went out of print, this extraordinary album has been repackaged many times. Remastered and widely re-released under its original title in 2001, Jackson C. Frank has come to be known as a classic among connoisseurs and fans of the genre.

After his album failed and the insurance money ran out, Frank returned to America where his biography slowly turned dark and tragic, living through homelessness, mental illness, and disfigurement, eventually dying at the early age of 56. All the more poignant once you know his story, but the album stands on its own as an essential, somewhat obscure entry in the folk genre and a moving, thoroughly rewarding experience on each listen.

“Where Can I Hide” (Bernie Schwartz)

The Wheel – Bernie Schwartz [Apple Music, Spotify]

Bernie Schwartz is no better a moniker for a rock star than it was for actor Tony Curtis (his real name). This Bernie Schwartz was a Hollywood-based singer-songwriter, a cohort of the Everly Brothers, recording various singles under pseudonyms, and was a member of the fledgling psychedelic band, The Comfortable Chair (whose sole 1968 album was produced by Lou Adler and John Densmore and Robby Krieger of The Doors). A year after that release (which sounds like a much weaker, sadder version of the musical, Hair), Schwartz got it together and made a killer mix of heavy music, late psychedelia, country rock, and soft ballads and made The Wheel, the only full album he ever released, and under his given name, at that.

Expertly produced with great detail by the duo of Wesley Watt and Bill Lincoln of the group Euphoria (more on them next), The Wheel is best described as a stylistic tour through the best of 1969 rock with a crack band and a gifted, expressive lead singer. A mix of original songs and lesser-known covers, this is a thoroughly enjoyable lost classic that is easily found again on streaming platforms. After The Wheel, Schwartz retired from music completely and became a successful author of self-help books, which doesn’t diminish the greatness of this obscure jewel of an album, which will bring a smile on first listen and then grow on you. Give this one a click.

A Gift From Euphoria – Euphoria

Here is a true curio from the Museum of WTF. A big-budget Beatlesque psychedelic country rock album that’s equal parts full-blown symphonic heaven, banjo-driven knee-slappers, and screaming guitar-driven, droning psych-rock madness, with some sound effect records thrown in, all done with precision with a great attention to detail and the best studio technology available in 1969. Recorded in Hollywood, London, and Nashville, A Gift From Euphoria was once optioned by Apple but instead put out by Capitol Records where it died a swift death. After the audaciously good, slightly schizophrenic full-tilt romp that was Bernie Schwart’s The Wheel, producers Wesley Watt and Bill Lincoln (the two members of Euphoria) apparently said, “hold my beer.”

Reissued on CD in 2003 and now entirely unavailable (overpriced used CD copies are hard to find and original vinyl, forget about it), A Gift From Euphoria isn’t up on any streaming platforms and YouTube only offers pieces of the album. Nonetheless, this music is worth hearing. Late 60s rock was a laboratory of cross-pollination and flavors of the Bee Gees, Notorious Byrd Brothers, Moody Blues, Flatt and Scruggs, Buffalo Springfield, and Magical Mystery Tour all combine in the acid-laced country rock stew the Euphoria brothers serve up here with equal parts ambition, gravitas, and whimsy. Truly wacky, inspired stuff. I wish I could link to the full album, but here it is in pieces that include all but three songs (one of the missing, “Sunshine Woman,” exists as a Euphoria-produced Bernie Schwartz cover on The Wheel, linked to above):

[A Gift From Euphoria, Full Album Part One]
[A Gift From Euphoria, Full Album Part Two]
[“Hollyville Train”]
[“Docker’s Son”]

“Geraldine and the Honeybee” (Willis Alan Ramsey)

Willis Alan Ramsey – Willis Alan Ramsey [Apple Music, Spotify]

Are you still with me?

For many, this one is the great lost album, one-shot deal of all time, and it’s a beaut. Willis Alan Ramsey is the writer of the strange Captain and Tennille hit, “Muskrat Love,” and its inclusion on his debut album is its absolute low point, which really isn’t all that low. Elsewhere, Willis Alan Ramsey, released in 1972, alternates between loose, greasy countrified funk and poignant fingerpicked reminiscences, playing masterfully with dynamics, chord changes, and heartstrings like a Deep South James Taylor. 

Texas-born Ramsey was the archetype of the new approach to country music, authentic and gritty, influenced by the rock revolution going on all around it. In contrast to the traditional, string-laden Nashville commercial country approach where hits were stamped out in a factory setting, this new kind of music coming out of Texas, Outlaw Country (as it would come to be known) was rooted in funky individualism and exuded a mix of realism, hippie philosophy, and its own kind of poetics. Though he only made one album, Willis Alan Ramsey, like Doug Sahm before him (also from Texas), pointed the way, his influence was felt, and the songs were widely covered.

Kind of a country J.D. Salinger, Willis Alan Ramsey made his mark and then retreated to the shadows, in his case, out of a deep disillusionment with the music industry. Though he later collaborated with Lyle Lovett on some co-writes and reportedly made some additional recordings (Ramsey even re-emerged in 2001 to appear on Austin City Limits), he never issued a follow-up to his self-titled debut album, letting it stand as his singular testament. It’s a fully-realized work of great depth and style that many have explored and taken to heart, made even more meaningful when considered in the context of its bold iconoclasm, given the conservative nature of country music to that point in the early 70s. Far from a mere curiosity, this “one and done” album is, in a word, essential. On its own merits, the extremely listenable, unassuming Willis Alan Ramsey is a real treasure and, thanks to digital streaming, only a click away.

For more on Outlaw Country, check out this excellent, in-depth article in Texas Monthly.

“Lost Ones” (Lauryn Hill)

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill – Lauryn Hill [Apple Music, Spotify]

Speaking of going against the grain, here’s one that skewers the misogyny and materialism that was the ascendant rap music brand circa 1998, when this album was released. ”Wisdom is better than silver and gold” is the line from “Lost Ones” that jumps out in the spare, confrontational rap that opens the record. Equally adept at singing and rap, Hill, the most musical member of The Fugees and arguably, its creative force, uses her self-produced solo album to boldly speak her mind, alternating hard-hitting rap and intense contemporary R&B songs, almost every track directly challenging, not the powers that be, but her peers in the community and specifically in the rap world. The refrain from “Superstar,” “how come we ain’t getting no higher?” gives voice to what’s on Lauryn Hill’s mind and her agenda. Despite garnering ten Grammy nominations (and winning five of them including Album of the Year and Best New Artist) The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill would be the last studio album she’d ever put out, either as solo or as a member of The Fugees, whose breakout second release The Score turned out to be that group’s swan song. The hiatus the band took to pursue opportunities as individuals after the major success of The Score (it too won the Grammy for Album of the Year) eventually became permanent. Wyclef Jean and Pres went on to major solo careers, but Lauryn Hill, always distrustful of and uncomfortable with the music business, eventually retreated to raise a family, leaving behind those two consecutive towering accomplishments as her signature works.

“Little Hands” (Skip Spence)

Oar – Skip Spence [Apple Music, Spotify]

Now for a ghostly, shambolic mess of an album that deserves a spot next to Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs and Big Star’s Third. Canadian-born from Windsor, Ontario, later moving with his family to San Jose, multi-instrumentalist Alexander “Skip” Spence was a major fixture on the San Francisco scene as guitarist in an early lineup of Quicksilver Messenger Service, after which he was recruited by Marty Balin to play drums on the first Jefferson Airplane album, and then returned to guitar as a founding member of Moby Grape. While recording the followup to that group’s stellar debut album, Spence underwent a violent mental break, reportedly entering the studio wielding a fire ax, intending to use it on bandmate Don Stevenson, an incident that landed Skip Spence incarcerated in Bellevue Hospital under psychiatric care, diagnosed with schizophrenia. Oar is the one and only Skip Spence solo album and it’s a fragmented mix of skeletal psychedelic acoustic rock, surreal country songs, and jittery ramblings all wrapped in bemused charm and swimming in layers of spooky reverb. Recorded in Nashville (untrue but persistent urban legend has it that on his release from Bellevue, Spence drove a motorcycle directly to the studio in his pajamas) with Spence himself layering all of the instrumentation and vocals, Oar is both a visionary solo work and a document of a gifted musician’s mental decline. An intriguing, open-ended collection of musical threads at first hearing, Oar comes into focus with repeated listenings, the poetry of its lyrics cohering and its melodies and hooks becoming more and more compelling.

After the release of his one solo album, Spence remained on the scene as a sort of mascot, ingesting copious amounts of drugs, occasionally appearing on stage with Moby Grape. And though Oar is infamous for being one of the lowest-selling major label releases of all time, More Oar: A Tribute to Skip Spence 1999 saw a track-for-track remake of the album with contributions by Robert Plant, Jay Farrar, Tom Waits, Robyn Hitchcock, and Beck, among others. Just before succumbing to lung cancer at age 53, Skip Spence had a well-earned smile listening to the tribute album on his deathbed.

“Last Goodbye” (Jeff Buckley)

Grace – Jeff Buckley [Apple Music, Spotify]

Equally intimate and bombastic, Grace is the one studio album completed in Jeff Buckley’s shortened lifetime. Recorded with a full band powered by Buckley’s own strumming and his elastic vocal prowess, it’s an aptly titled, deeply felt work of great beauty and cultural significance. There are a handful of 90s rock albums that carry that unique decade’s signature; Grace is its most poignant, not just because Buckley died while creating its followup (he drowned accidentally, spontaneously wading fully-clothed into the Mississippi River and getting dragged under by the current). Lyrically alone, Grace is a great leap forward in terms of intimacy, honesty, poetic imagery, and just plain having something meaningful to say. Add Jeff Buckley’s unique way with chord changes and detailed fretwork, his range-defying vocals, a deep understanding of the power of dynamics, and a playful sense of structure and form, plus a band that plays their asses off. It’s a helluva record.

His father, the highly accomplished, adventurous Tim Buckley began as a 60s folk singer, moved through wildly different styles including the avant-garde, and ended up dying at age 28 from an overdose of heroin and morphine, leaving behind two sons, Taylor and Jeff. As the son of a troubadour, Jeff Buckley’s music always bore undue scrutiny, but he fared better than most of his 2nd-generation rockstar peers among critics and the public. After playing guitar in bands in high school in Anaheim, Buckley moved to Hollywood and studied music at Musician’s Institute, learning new chords, and hearing parallels between his beloved rock music (his first album was Led Zep’s Physical Graffiti), and the modernist music of Ravel, Ellington, and Bartók. From there, Buckley moved to New York for a short-lived spell in Gods & Monsters, a renowned band he joined with experimental guitarist Gary Lucas, and subsequently, moving on to perform solo with just his Telecaster on the Lower Manhattan coffeehouse circuit. It was at this point that he was signed to Sony, who released a 4-song EP in 1993, Live at Sin-é, the East Village haunt where Buckley had secured a Monday night residency interspersing original songs with a diverse, deep exploration of cover songs across a wide variety of eras and genres, all centered around his greatest asset, his agile singing voice. A year later saw the release of the full-scale effort, Grace, and Jeff Buckley stepped to the main stage, thrust to the artistic forefront of the alt-rock movement.

In the years since his death, live albums, demos, half-finished, and near-completed works have been released, each of them revealing another facet of this rare, committed, truly inspired artist. He spent so much of his short life in constant growth, evolution, and discovery, very much his father’s son, even though they only met once when Jeff was eight years old. Grace is a beautiful album, sadly his only fully-realized work, but one that resonates with humanity and power to this day.

“This Will Be Our Year” (The Zombies)

Odessey and Oracle – The Zombies [Apple Music, Spotify]

This last entry is a bit of a cheat. The two principles Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent did get together and record with new side players as The Zombies thirty years after the group split up. And The Zombies did put out one LP during their British Invasion heyday, but it was slapped together from already-released singles and a rushed crop of R&B covers. Odessey and Oracle is the group’s one release of totally original material that was conceived and executed as a full-scale work, after which the band immediately broke up. It’s really their only album, it’s an absolute pop-masterpiece, one of the best albums of the 60s, and virtually unknown by the music-loving public at large (which was why Jon Brion freaked when he heard it playing in that L.A. coffee shop in the early 90s – see The Grays entry above).

The gorgeous, inventive melodies of The Zombies and stunning, silky vocals of lead singer Colin Blunstone are on par with their contemporaries The Beatles and The Beach Boys but they suffered from a paucity of hit songs. By 1967, despite releasing a whole slew of great singles, The Zombies had only scored with “She’s Not There (1964, their debut release)” and “Tell Her No (1965),” their original contract with Decca had expired, and they were thinking of calling it a day. Instead, they signed with CBS with a small budget (which was actually fortuitous because it forced the band to utilize the new Mellotron keyboard instead of hiring string and brass players). The songwriting (best described as baroque pop) was split pretty evenly between keyboardist Rod Argent and bassist Chris White, both maintaining the highest level of quality, narrative focus, and English charm.

Recorded on a tight deadline between June and August of 1967 at Abbey Road (engineered by Geoff Emerick) and Olympic Studios (9 of the 12 songs were recorded on the same Studer 4-track machine as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), Odessey and Oracle carries the sound of a lost Beatles album, with melodic and harmonic invention to match. And oh, those vocals. Tensions flared with Blunstone constantly chafing at Argent’s direction at how best to sing his compositions (“Time of the Season” was reportedly the song that caused the biggest rift), and by December of 1967, with the album still unreleased, The Zombies were no more.

CBS eventually put out Odessey and Oracle on its tiny subsidiary, Date Records in 1968 (label head Clive Davis had initially passed on releasing it but under the insistence of newly-hired A&R rep, Al Kooper, he relented). “Time of the Season” was chosen as a single (also championed by Kooper) and sank with no label promotion. However, on the strength of DJs who loved the song, it slowly pushed itself up the charts. By early 1969, the song had eventually reached #3 in America, the group’s biggest hit ever, but by then, times had changed. Rod Argent was recording hard rock with his new band Argent, and The Zombies were an afterthought, their 60s baroque pop style already slightly passé.

The ensuing decades have been kind to Odessey and Oracle and its value has been completely reassessed. Critics have discovered the album and it’s universally hailed as a masterwork, one of the great albums of the rock era. It’s never anything but painful to watch a band or artist disintegrate right at their peak, but it’s kind of fitting that a band as succinctly eloquent as The Zombies only existed in the idyllic mid-60s and that they went out on such a high, satisfying note. I personally discovered this great lost album in the mid-90s, not long after Jon Brion and Jason Faulkner bonded over it. The one album The Zombies created in their prime continues to be a touchstone for connoisseurs of the baroque pop style that was the great hallmark of the British Invasion bands as they matured and developed. Add this one to your collection if you haven’t already.

There, that’s thirteen debuts that also work as swan songs, all albums worth hearing, many of them masterpieces. There are more but let’s leave that for the comments section. I welcome your offerings. Thanks for reading!

Exit sign Photo by Kelly L