[7 March 2014]
Colin Blunstone is a bit of a hero, really. As lead singer with the Zombies, he had a No. 14 hit in the UK nearly 50 years (natch) ago with “She’s Not There”, later covered (but not improving on the Britbeat’s simplicity) by Santana. Colin also hit the UK Top 20 in 1972 with the beautifully baroque “Say You Don’t Mind”.
But both these achievements pale into insignificance alongside the Zombies’ extraordinary 1968 masterpiece Odessey and Oracle (the cover designers were responsible for the misspelling, in case you were wondering). This LP was one of the first testaments of the psychedelic/pop/folk trend to emerge from the late ‘60s. Inevitably the Beatles’ and Byrds’ full-blown conversion in ‘66 drove the psych movement, but the folkier tinges can be heard from ‘68 onwards ranging from Small Faces dabblings to US bands like The Association. It’s a period not to be underestimated, not least because it gave the harpsichord its proper place in the studio.
To stay on point, Odessey and Oracle was the business: every track a memorable song. It even, somewhat bizarrely, spawned a 1969 No. 3 US hit in “Time of the Season”. By then, the Zombies, disillusioned by the album’s lack of chart success in their homeland, had split up. But Odessey and Oracle has grown in stature with every passing year—so much so that Rolling Stone ranked it as their 100th best ever album—and with it the Blunstone voice and his ability to catalyse classy pop arrangements.
Ah, the Colin Blunstone voice: an instrument of aural candy, mixing a soft breathless timbre with a metier for vocal swoops and dives. In this, his first solo album since 2009 (although it’s already been released in the UK, in 2012), it’s the voice you turn to straightaway – can he still cut it, is that unique tone still intact? Well, the short answer is yes; and by all accounts he can still deliver in live performance as well (the surviving members of Zombies have re-formed in recent years, and Blunstone will soon be doing his first live shows in the States for 40 years).
It’s easy to become almost obsessed with the Blunstone voice, so much that you forget the material and arrangements behind it. In that regard On the Air Tonight is, to be frank, a mixed bag. The 10 tracks on offer comprise some old Blunstone/Zombies remakes, a couple of covers (including Duncan Browne’s “Wild Places”), and a few new writes. Musically, it is on the one hand positioned in different eras; but at the same time there is a consistent feel to the overall product, especially on the slower piano-led tracks (which also carry the most impact).
The opener “Turn Your Heart Around” and the slower “So Much More” exemplify Blunstone’s ability to dip into the decades. “Turn Your Heart Around”, with a similar (if slightly stilted) dynamic to say Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger” is all 1980s – which is maybe not surprising as it was recorded by Blunstone’s 1984 short-lived Alan Parsons Project offshoot Keats. Whereas “So Much More” is that straightahead ‘60s Britpop simplicity, complete with Farfisa organ. “Not Our Time” is somewhat anonymous ‘70s soft-rock
But it really is on the ballads—where the material is stronger—that Blunstone and his musicians hit their stride. “The Best Is Yet To Come”, co-written by Mel C of The Spice Girls (more musically talented than you might think) is quietly glorious, punctuated by some fantastic Blunstone high notes and a shining backing vocal troupe. The title track also stands out, with a Billy Joel-like piano intro, a lovely acoustic solo interlude and the type of fragile vocal which Colin Blunstone excels in.
In conclusion, this is a nice album with some genuinely quality moments. But, although you have to hand it to Colin Blunstone that he is evidently still crazy for music after all these years, you also believe he could still stretch himself out a bit more. Take a leaf out of Paul McCartney’s or Elton John’s book, Colin: go get yourself some modern ace producers/collaborators; hawk around for some new material; and showcase that voice in excelsis. There’s time yet for this often underrated artist to produce something really special.