Saturday, July 16, 2016

CD Review: The Monkees - Good Times!

The Monkees
Good Times!

Side Two of More of the Monkees, the band's sophomore release, was dicey territory for me as a kid. The incredibly catchy "Look Our (Here Comes Tomorrow)" was spoiled by the line "Mary, out what a sweet girl/ Lips like.... strawberry pie." (Years later, I don't see any problem, but at the time it was mush. I think I might've misheard it as "looks like strawberry pie.") "Laugh" was also an atrocity, for reasons to numerous too mention. My young ears probably took the "ha-ha-ha" backing vocals too personally.

But I had to take action against "The Day We Fall In Love," the strings-and-12-string-guitar/spoken word piece that Davy Jones recited dramatically. (His Manchester accent turned it into "The Day We Fool en Luff," but I'm sure the teenyboppers swooned anyway.) Even though no one else would probably see my copy of the record, I had to post a warning about this piece of mush.

With pencil in hand, I crossed the song out (not very effectively) and wrote "Boo" next to it.

Regardless of who was writing their songs back in the '60s, be it a member of the band or one of the crack songwriting teams which they employed, the Monkees were likely to move back and forth between direct and elusive. There might have been a deeper meaning to "The Porpoise Song" but it didn't matter because it sounded so beautifully lush. To prove that I'm not going to trash all of Davy's songs (the above offenders all featured him), his "When Love Comes Knockin' (At Your Door)" is direct and irresistible, all in less than two minutes.

So when surviving members Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork get together for a new album, and they go back to original Monkess formula of employing other songwriters for material - AND the list of composers includes Andy Patridge (XTC), Rivers Cuomo (Weezer), Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie), Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne), the expectations are high. The band's previous reunion album Just Us, was admirable because they handled all the instruments, but the songwriting was lacking. Maybe their musical offsprings can bring something to the Monkee table.

And they do, without a doubt. The songs are filled with major/minor hooks, 7th chords played on twangy 12-string guitars, layers of harmonies. They leave me swooning like a Davy fan hearing "The Day We Fall In Love." The lads sound strong too, including Tork, whose battle with throat cancer has dropped his voice down a little lower, giving it more rugged quality that still befits the music.

But the lyrics threaten to derail some of these tracks. "I'll bring the chips and the dips and the root beer/ even though dark purple rainclouds are near...." "She makes me laugh/ she makes me smile/ And I could hang out with her all day and night/ she makes me laugh/ she makes me cry/ and I would like to be with her for awhile."

Typing them out, maybe they aren't quite as awful as they were on first blush. But the first line comes for the pen of Mr. Partridge - you know, the guy who wrote "Senses Working Over Time" and numerous others. The second comes from Mr. Cuomo. I think I was writing lyrics on that level when I was a tween, and didn't really know how to write songs.

Having said all that, this is the strongest album produced under the band's name since Head, what I consider to be their last consistent album. They made a bold move by taking a backing track of a song Harry Nilsson gave them in 1968 and fleshing it out, leaving the composer's voice in for a duet with Dolenz. Now the title track, it doesn't have any Nat "King" Cole/Natalie Cole qualities to it, nor any of the bad elements of the Beatles' post-mortem work with John Lennon tracks. "Good Times" might be a little basic in the lyric department, but Dolenz still has the pipes to kick some excitement into it.

In order to keep the deceased Davy Jones in the fold, the group dusted off Neil Diamond's "Love to Love." The song, touted by Rhino as unreleased, actually appeared on 1996's Missing Links Volume 3. But this version adds more backing vocals (by all three surviving band members) which gives it some more weight. It serves as a fitting homage to the late Monkee.

Nesmith, true to his own Monkees material, must have called dibs on the more elusive songs. Gibbard's "Me and Magdalena" has both a beautiful country/folk quality and some of the stronger lyrics, which go beyond the usual love song territory. The big surprise, not just for Nesmith but the whole album, comes with the song that doesn't seem to be pushed by the label as much as the others. "Birth of an Accidental Hipster" is credited to Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher (!), and is filled with psychedelic phase shifting, traded vocals between Nesmith and Dolenz and a three-note recurring interlude which, if it wasn't inspired by Pink Floyd's "Matilda Mother," is an insane coincidence.

Tork states in his liner notes that he wrote "Little Girl" for Davy, envisioning it as a good followup to "I Wanna Be Free." It's a catchy song, but couplets like "Little girl, don't you hang around/Stand up, we'll go town/go for a ride/ I'll be your guide," sink it. Better is his version of Carole King's "Wasn't Born to Follow." Already recorded by everyone from the Byrds to Dusty Springfield, the song gets new life from Tork's resonant voice, which adds more depth to the message behind the song.

The final verdict - anyone who has ever loved the Monkees needs this album. Sure, it's flawed but there's plenty of qualities that make up for it. The fact that they had the wherewithal to enlist their progeny to work with them speaks legions for Micky, Mike and Peter. Let's hope they do it again.

Speaking of which, in looking up Adam Schlesinger (who not only wrote but also produced and played a lot of the backing tracks), I discovered he's only about three weeks younger than me. So if the band is looking for other songwriters to work with, people of a similar, refined age - or if they just want to bust one writer's chops and ask what he can do - you know where to find me.

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