The Zombies Play a "Different Game"
The British Invasion Stalwarts Enjoy an Energetic Creative Burst
Upon reaching a certain age, it’s inevitable to ponder the impending end of the run, to embrace - as Warren Zevon once wryly observed - the importance of enjoying every sandwich. Unfortunately, these thoughts aren’t reserved only for card-carrying members of the octogenarian or nonagenarian membership club. The reality is that this experience of life is something that humans of all ages should appreciate, explore and enjoy. After all, one never knows how long a life we’re given, do we?
Different Game (Cooking Vinyl) by the Zombies finds them - either purposely, or otherwise - exploring concepts relating to time running out, spreading one’s wings and flying away, moving on, and counting each sunrise and sunset. The album - featuring Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent - showcases ten songs, nine of which Argent wrote during lockdown, and were recorded, mostly in a live studio setting, as Argent describes on the album’s liner notes, “a basic track would take just three or four hours to record - just as in the old days! We loved the process, which became once more a question of ‘capturing’ a moment in time - the magic which happens when the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts.” He continues explaining the live approach in the studio, “Some of the “guide” vocals were superb, and turned out to be masters; similarly, some solos had the first-time improvisational freshness that we just couldn’t improve on.”
The album begins with “Different Game” which features excellent writing, reminiscent of Procol Harum or an early-70s Argent band composition. Colin sounds comfortable and assured. Strings by the Q Strings quartet instantly provides the boutique sophistication and panache that the band excels at creating. String arrangements on the album by Rod Argent are astute and masterful. The second track - the lead off single - “Dropped Reeling and Stupid” finds the group inhabiting an almost Steely Dan boogie with some tasty Rhodes keys reminding listeners that Rod Argent is a keyboard monster and the entire Zombies catalog - up to the present-day - wouldn't be the same without his keyboard parts and arranging prowess.
“Rediscover” is a smoky 50’s era ballad mixed in with some Beach Boys flourishes and cleverness. It’s yet another song showcasing the one-two punch that the Zombies are still able to deliver: that is Blunstone’s killer vocals and Argent’s weighty keyboard prowess and arranging chops whose Hammond licks steal the show at the end of the song. “Runaway” is a bluesy minor key number; Colin’s vocals get a bit lost in the mix on this meandering track.
“You Could Be My Love” is a kissing cousin to Bob Dylan’s, “To Make You Feel My Love”. It serves as a first-rate vocal/piano piece that you might hear soon at a wedding reception near you. Again, this song serves as a showpiece for Blunstone and Argent as a timeless music-making duo. The Q Strings again punctuate the track and Blunstone’s vocals are presented the way they should be: organic and commanding with plenty of breathless romance.
As enjoyable as side one is, the party truly begins on the opposite side. “Merry Go Round” is a jaunty and delightfully McCartneyesque uptempo piano rocker featuring Argent’s unexpected compositional turns and his masterfully dominant attack on an otherwise unsuspecting Steinway grand. This is the best full-band track on the album. The ages of the performers and composers again come into context with the beautiful, “Love You While I Can” which compels us to recognize the foolishness of wasting time on the nonsense of life and encourages us to appreciate each minute as a gift, no matter what age you may be; to spend each moment loving the one you’re with.
A simple vocal and string quartet treatment supports, “I Want to Fly” a song recalling Blunstone’s first solo album, One Year (1971) which recently celebrated a 50th anniversary with a deluxe expanded reissue from Sundazed Music which I discussed at length with Colin upon its release. Another reason this song might remind a listener of that record is because the string arrangements here were written by Chris Gunning who also created the adventurously high-caliber string arrangements on One Year. Sadly - and further tying into the borrowed time theme of the album - Mr. Gunning passed away just last week, on March 24, 2023. With this in mind - the song serves as a fitting, late-career night-cap to Blunstone’s solo album and also to Gunning’s work in the pop realm. How wise and thoughtful to clear the stage for Colin and quartet; for while his vocal prowess with one of the greatest rock bands of the British Invasion is unparalleled; when Colin is in a parlor setting, he’s truly in another one of his elements. This number, of course, serves as a fitting farewell to Gunning who composed and arranged music for many film and television pieces during his half-century career. This is the standout track on the album.
If “I Want to Fly” doesn’t get you misty-eyed, then “The Sun Will Rise Again” - the album’s sole track composed by Blunstone - certainly will. It’s an exquisitely bittersweet lament that again hearkens back to his solo work. it’s also performed in a lower vocal register, giving Blunstone’s approach a relaxed and conversational quality. Tom Toomey’s acoustic guitar engages in a sweet interplay with Rod Argent’s watery Wurlitzer and brings the album to a fitting and thematically satisfying conclusion.
While the album’s cover is a bit for grins, it finds these rock legends poking a little fun at the trials and tribulations of life on the road after their van’s engine caught fire and left them stranded in the middle of the vast deserts of Arizona. However, the image really doesn’t fit the band’s aural aesthetic, and might even serve to underplay - to a certain extent - the important work contained inside the sleeve. There are those, unfortunately, who do judge a record by its jacket. Speaking of sleeves, my copy came a bit banged up with several seam splits. There is some surface noise evident on this red pressing, but not enough to detract from Ryan Smith’s (Sterling Sound) excellent vinyl master which was pressed in the EU. The soundstage is wide and detailed with plenty of instrumental separation to keep the exciting live approach from becoming muddied.
Blunstone and Argent could be contented playing the golden hits that they are well-known for as they make their way touring the world, but they have - very admirably - decided that joining together to compose and produce new music is an important part of the final leg of their journey. There are two key takeaways to this important partnership: the first is that they create music of a distinguished and first-string quality, the second - a bonus for listeners - is that they produce music that pays tribute to their core history and sound. t’s a pleasure to still have the opportunity to enjoy the complimentary powerhouse of this fraternal rock n’ roll affiliation. The album’s lyrical content might appropriately bend toward thoughtfully autumnal subject matter, but it’s a safe bet that the Zombies still have a few tricks left up their sleeve given their current energy level and creative momentum.