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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the three THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Monkees: GOOD TIMES! review

Heh--my first album review in well over a decade.  The Monkees brought me out of retirement!
 http://www.monkees.com/sites/default/files/the-monkees-good-times-cover-art-final-1200x1200.jpg



In the novel Glimpses by Lewis Shiner, the protagonist develops the power of time travel, but a very specific sort of time travel:  he is able to travel back in rock 'n' roll history, and he tries to help artists like The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and The Doors complete works that were left unfinished in the real-world timeline.  Our hero's crowning achievement is shepherding Brian Wilson through the completion of The Beach Boys' unrealized 1967 masterpiece Smile; returning back from '67 to the novel's present-day setting, the now-completed Smile is released, and is embraced by fans worldwide as an unexpected, enduring source of pure joy and happiness.

Don't worry:  no one's going to compare Good Times!, the new 50th anniversary reunion album by The Monkees, to the mythical 1967 Smile, nor even to Brian Wilson's 21st-century version.  But the above scenario is pertinent to today's discussion, for one simple reason:  just as Smile caused pop fans in the novel to rejoice, The Monkees' new album likewise inspires a delighted grin, a smile that grows wider and wider upon repeated listening.   Good Times!  Never has an album been more aptly named.

It's a gift we may not have really anticipated.

Many of us know this story by heart:  The Monkees were formed in the mid-'60s by neophyte TV producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, who cast singin' actors Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones alongside singin' musicians Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork as the titular struggling rock 'n' roll combo in a new weekly television series; the series debuted September 12, 1966 on NBC.  Music mogul Don Kirshner was brought in to make Monkee music, bringing with him songwriters and session players, and directing the TV show's four young stars to sing, Monkees, sing!  The records sold.  And sold.  And how!  A # 1 single, "Last Train To Clarksville."  A # 1 album, The Monkees. Another # 1 single, "I'm A Believer."  Another # 1 album, More Of The Monkees. Buoyed by success, but chafing under Kirshner's control, The Monkees sought a more active role in their musical efforts, and were allowed to play on their recordings, and given a (somewhat) larger say in their fortunes.  More great and even greater records followed, but the TV show ran its course; after the dismal box office failure of The Monkees' bitter, brilliant feature film Head, The Monkees' pop success faded.  Tork left.  Nesmith left.  In 1970, Dolenz and Jones killed the lights on their way out, too.  The TV show's two seasons were rerun again and again, across the course of generations.  There was a partial reunion (without Nesmith) in the late '80s, and all four regrouped in 1996 for a new album, TV special, and a brief UK tour; both reunions ended in a flurry of bickering.  Dolenz, Jones, and Tork returned for an acclaimed 2011 tour that embraced The Monkees' vast recorded legacy as never before.  Jones passed away in 2012.  To the surprise of...well, everyone, Nesmith rejoined Dolenz and Tork for a fantastic reunion tour in 2012-13.  Nesmith eventually withdrew from touring again, leaving Dolenz and Tork as The Last Monkees Standing (and Touring).

This was the state of Monkee affairs when word of a 50th anniversary reunion album leaked in February of 2016.  The questions came unbidden:  Would Nesmith participate?  Hell, would Tork?  Would it be a glorified Micky Dolenz solo album?  Would it be any damned good at all?  And how could these blasphemers presume to do this without the late Davy Jones?!

The answers arrived in a slow-cooked stew of guerilla hype and sly rumors let slip.  By the time of its release, we knew that Good Times! would be prepared under the auspices of Monkees superfan Andrew Sandoval and producer Adam Schlesinger (of Fountains Of Wayne and That Thing You Do! fame).  The album would be a mix of new recordings--including songs written by each of the surviving Monkees, as well as songwriting submissions from XTC's Andy Partridge, Weezer's Rivers Cuomo, Death Cab For Cutie's Ben Hibbard, and the Britpop Modgasm pairing of Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller--with unfinished (and now finished!) '60s stuff from the vaults.  Micky, Peter, and Michael were involved; Davy would be represented by a remixed 1967 recording, with new backing vocals from Micky and Peter.

This could have been a recipe for a big ol' mess.  Instead, Good Times! has a good shot at being the best pop album of 2016.

Good Times! starts and ends with explicit exhortations of good times to be had and good times to be remembered.  The album opens with a title track written by the late Harry Nilsson; the track is actually Nilsson's 1968 demo of the song, with Nilsson's 1968 voice dueting with present-day Dolenz, a potentially scary prospect that avoids being ghoulish by just being so much freewheeling fun. You can feel Dolenz's affection for his departed friend in every loose 'n' swingin' hoot and holler.  The album closer, "I Was There (And I'm Told I Had A Good Time)," co-written by Dolenz and Schlesinger (based on Dolenz's oft-told anecdote of being at a bacchanalia with The Beatles), likewise swaggers with satisfied pride in all the gusto grabbed along the way.  It's not strictly essential, but it's not a throwaway, either.  Perhaps that's the nature of good times.

And in between those two tracks?  Oh Lordy--Good Times! is just magic.

Micky Dolenz--one of the most underrated pop singers of the rock 'n' roll era--is given three brand-new pop confections, all made with real sugar, and they're irresistible.  Andy Partridge's "You Bring The Summer," Rivers Cuomo's "She Makes Me Laugh," and Adam Schlesinger's "Our Own World" are light and sunshiney in all the right ways, as if More Of The Monkees had been made in 2016, and someone found a way to beam its tracks directly into the radio that plays inside your head.  "Radio-ready" is one of this blog's favorite phrases, describing perfect pop music that is so pure as to be undeniable, the stuff you wish you were listening to right now on a car radio turned up way too loud. Man, pop tunes don't come any more radio-ready than these.  Speaking of More Of The Monkees, Dolenz also gets to sing two songs that date back to that 1967 album:  the Jeff Barry/Joey Levine "Gotta Give It Time" is a sturdy garage-pop nugget, its backing track completed in 1967 by the Kirshner hit machine, now with newly-added vocals by Dolenz (and uncredited backing vocals by Nesmith); Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart's "Whatever's Right" was also submitted for The Monkees in '67, but this is an all-new recording (with Hart himself joining in on vocals).  At 71, Dolenz can still bend a pop tune to his will like no other can, and all five of these tracks (plus the two "Good Times" celebrations) give him ample opportunity to do so.

Peter Tork was never The Monkees' key singer, but he acquits himself quite well on his two tracks. The first is "Little Girl," a song Tork originally wrote as a follow-up to "I Wanna Be Free," a popular Davy Jones-sung ballad from The Monkees' eponymous debut in 1966. While Jones never quite got around to recording a version of "Little Girl," Tork's all-new rendition is amiable and likable.  But Tork's lead on the Carole King/Gerry Goffin "Wasn't Born To Follow"--a track begun in the studio in 1968, with added vocal by Tork in 2016--is an understated triumph, one of the best performances that Tork has ever given on record.

Still, it's Michael Nesmith who ultimately puts Good Times! over the top.  His own song "I Know What I Know" is disarming, quietly mesmerizing, uncluttered, and fascinating--yet it's still somehow the least among the three tracks with Nesmith lead vocals.  Ben Gibbard's "Me & Magdalena," with harmony and counterpoint vocals from Dolenz, is full of hope and/or heartbreak--one is never quite sure which--but the song just aches with love's promise and life's compromise; regardless of whether the song reflects the heart's ongoing victory or an imminent, devastating loss, it is unforgettable.  The album's tour de force is the Noel Gallagher/Paul Weller "Birth Of An Accidental Hipster," where Nesmith's co-lead vocals are again complemented by Mr. Mick.  This track certainly calls to mind Gallagher's old band Oasis, but it sounds equally like THE Great Lost Monkees track.  It would have fit in well on 1968's The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees album; it would have fit in well on the soundtrack of Head.   It's a freakin' psychedelic pop masterpiece, and it may be one of the all-time greatest tracks to ever bear The Monkees' brand name.  Make no mistake:  if Good Times! had been completed without this track, it would still be a terrific album, maybe a great one; the inclusion of "Birth Of An Accidental Hipster" tosses that "maybe" away, and ensures that yes, Virginia (and Sandra, and Mary, and Valleri, and Fern), The Monkees have indeed made a great album in 2016.

The late Davy Jones is represented on Good Times! by Neil Diamond's superb pop song "Love To Love,"  which was recorded in 1967 but unreleased until the '80s.  Its inclusion here is curious; it's certainly a wonderful track, one of Jones' best, but it's hardly a rarity.  Although this is its first appearance on a proper Monkees album, the track has been on compilations and repackages galore.  It is slightly remixed for Good Times!, with Davy's original double-tracked lead vocal stripped to a single track, and with new Micky and Peter backing vocals on the chorus.  So yeah, an odd choice. Still, a great song's a great song. "Love To Love" had a circuitous path to get here, but it's a nice remix, and none should complain about it finally taking its rightful place on an actual Monkees album.

As a 50th anniversary celebration, Good Times! was specifically designed to include key figures from The Monkees' history.  There are The Monkees themselves, of course (including Davy), plus songwriters Boyce & Hart, King & Goffin, Neil Diamond, Harry Nilsson, and "I'm A Believer" producer Jeff Barry, the late "Fast" Eddie Hoh (drummer on much of The Monkees' best album, 1967's Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd.), and even Don Kirshner is sorta represented by the 1967 studio musicians performing on "Love To Love" and "Gotta Give It Time."  Notable MIAs would be songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (who wrote "Shades Of Gray" and "Love Is Only Sleeping"), and especially Chip Douglas, who produced both of The Monkees' best '60s albums, Headquarters and Pisces, and played on them as well. Douglas played an enormous role in The Monkees' emancipation in '67, and it would have been a kick to see him involved in here somehow.

Reunion albums are tricky, especially if it's a reunion of a group you loved a long, long time ago.  There have been a handful of interesting reunion records by '60s groups--The Animals' 1977 album Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted comes to mind, as well as The Beau Brummels in '75, and The Beach Boys' more recent That's Why God Made The Radio--but you'd be hard-pressed to find many reunion albums that could truly stand shoulder-to-shoulder among any group's best-loved work. Hell, until now, you'd be hard-pressed to find one.  But Good Times! pulls it off--unexpectedly, miraculously, and convincingly--and can be considered right alongside the much-loved records The Monkees made in the '60s.  Even its sequencing evokes the arc of The Monkees' original recording career, from the prefab, peerless pop of the earliest tracks, skipping the self-contained hey-hey-we're a-rock-band of Headquarters, but running full-force into a contemporary Pisces, Birds & Bees, and Head, even subtly suggesting a post-1968 version of The Monkees if Tork had stayed in the fold.

With its mix of studio hotshots (particularly Schlesinger, guitarist Mike Viola, and drummer Brian Young on the new Dolenz-sung tracks) and bona fide contributions from The Monkees themselves, the album's approach recalls the heyday of the Pisces record, mixed with a bit of the ol' Golden-Eared Kirshner More Of The Monkees method on Dolenz's sugarpop tracks.  "Birth Of An Accidental Hipster" then builds a bridge to the psychedelic heights of Head, and the whole damned thing should just make you gleefully, willfully giddy.  If this is The Monkees' swan song, they'll go out on top.  If they do more in the future...well, that would be welcome, welcome news.  Good times?  GREAT times.

Oh, and next stop?  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  What on God's green earth is there still left for The Monkees to prove?  We're believers, anyway.