Odessa: Bee Gees Early Career Masterpiece

The Bee Gees 1968 concept album “Odessa” was both an artistic triumph and their Waterloo.
Recorded at New York’s Atlantic Recording Studios, Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb’s Odessa has been compared in stature to The Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart’s Club Band.

Odessa 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 fictional tale of the sole survivor of the British ship Veronica. 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 Gibb sing lead. 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. “Odessa (City on the Black Sea)” is a failure, but it’s an elegant one. There are some brilliant elements in it, including the lacquered strings and layered Russian winter back up vocals.

Luxurious Strings and Harmonies

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 at will. An acoustic-based number with luxurious strings with Barry Gibb 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 a sterling example of how effective Robin could be whenever he tempered his overtly emotional delivery. A country-flavored tune in the over the top tradition of Conway Twitty, “Black Diamond” shines, aided by Barry’s soaring back ups and Maurice’s thick bass line.

“Marley Purt Drive” is country blues that’s kin to The Band’s “The Weight,” with punctuating stick work from drummer Colin Petersen and an authentic breeze of bluegrass banjo from Bill Keith (The Kweskin Jug Band). 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.”

“Melody Fair” is 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 sweep the listener back to a time when parlors 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, “Suddenly” is a humable lament with a rare lead by Maurice Gibb, who shares the spotlight with a dancing oboe. Although he was Robin’s twin, Maurice’s deep tones more resemble older brother Barry with few perceptible differences. Maurice sighs and snickers with more emotional latitude than one usually finds in a Bee Gees song, giving “Suddenly” an attractive playfulness. With the passing of Maurice, Barry stated in a January 30, 2009 interview with Alex Petrides for the Guardian that he’d like to do Odessa live with Robin.

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

Parisian Influences And A Square Dance

“Lamplight” has 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 warblely 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’s expressive territory.

“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” was for The Beatles – shuckin,’ irreverent fun. The Bee Gees didn’t always assay country successfully, but this is one of their best, and it was polished off in one happy-go-lucky take.

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. “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.”

Middle brother Robin, peeved that Barry’s track “First of May” was chosen as the first single over his song, “Lamplight,” quit the group in a snit following Odessa’s release. 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.”

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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