In 1969, after releasing three psych-pop albums in little more than a year’s time (the best of which, Bee Gees’ 1st, is like Revolver at a tea party: awesome), the Bee Gees went whole hog into melodramatic chamber rock with Odessa, a 17-track double album steeped in gaudy melody and lush orchestration. Odessa feels like a concept album — even if it lacks a true conceptual narrative at its core — most likely because it begins with a seven-minute epic about the “British ship Veronica” lost in the Baltic Sea, a theme later picked up by cinematic instrumentals like “Seven Seas Symphony”, and because it is long as hell. (Somewhere one of the Decemberists is eating his or her heart out.) The Bee Gees were still a solid six years away from their notorious disco period (in ’69, the Gibb brothers were all barely in their 20s), and here they found themselves somewhere beyond the lively pull of the exquisite psychedelia of their earlier records and into something weighted with sobering self-importance. Despite its many pluses (more on those in a moment), Odessa is a bit too much — too many ballads, too many instances of the Gibb brothers’ voices trembling atop platters of strings, too close to an overblown concept in mood, if not in plot.
Rhino’s lavish three-disc reissue (the sequel to 2007’s box set that collected those first three albums for Polydor) replicates the original vinyl by coating the small box in red velvet; inside, original artwork, a fold-out poster, and sticker offer tangible temptations for a digital era. The first two discs present the entire album in stereo and mono, respectively (which is better is a decision perhaps best left to the ear of the beholder, but an argument for stereo is the way to go for the full on-the-ocean-no-one-can-hear-you-scream-or-sing-emotional-ballads effect), and the third disc offers up an array of demos, alternate mixes, and a few unreleased tracks.
The extravagance of the reissue’s packaging (which, in all seriousness, is utterly fantastic — an area in which the folks at Rhino continue to excel) is a manifestation of the album, which, despite being the album to listen to while stoned out on a lonely patch of ocean surrounded by black abyss below and blue sky above, often sacrifices economy to the will of artsy ambition. The opening track, “Odessa (City on the Black Sea)”, with its choirs of voices soaked in reverb, yawping “Ohhhhh-desssss-aaaaaaa” — the puffed-up gravity, beaten-down acoustic guitar, and weeping cello prove a lethal combination indeed. More of these warbling cries get sent careening across the opulent fray, in songs like “Lamplight” and “The British Opera”, but more troublesome is how quickly the record loses any steam in its second half — a fate wrought by ballads, harp-laden instrumentals, and a general unwillingness to self-edit.
Odessa would have made a fine single album, evidenced by its abundance of strong songs. (Incidentally, a single-LP version of the record was issued in the ’70s, but it managed to delete some good and bad songs alike.) “Marley Port Drive” and “Melody Fair” are both driven by memorable melodies, the former being an escapist sing-along faintly related to the Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek” and the latter, with its genteel Beatleisms, sounding like an outtake from 1st. A Lennon-esque vocal gives the circus-rock of “Whisper Whisper” a raw edge and makes way for the song’s harder second half, as close to “rock” as Odessa ever gets. It’s unclear what to make of a track like “Edison”, a hymn-like salute to the inventor (“He really made the day!”) — is it intentional or unintentional humor? Does it matter if the song is this bubbly and likeable? Likewise, the country pastiche “Give Your Best” pairs up the Gibbs’ idiosyncratic voices with a hoedown arrangement, and this is not necessarily a good thing.
The bonus material on disc three neither enriches nor exacerbates the album’s content, though when listening to demo material, one notices how surprisingly stripped-down Odessa actually feels, despite boasting such luxuriant overtones. Often, drums, bass, and guitar form the only pieces of instrumentation, not including the orchestra or an occasional woodwind, and so it’s to the Bee Gees’ credit they construct something so grandiose while maintaining distinct instrument separation in the mix (again, thumbs-up for the stereo version). The Bee Gees classify as nothing if not discriminating craftsman — one can appreciate this in both the psychedelic miniatures of their past and the club-bound anthems delivered at the height of their popularity — and so we can therefore appreciate that Odessa is a moment where the group simply made too much of a good thing.