Saturday, December 08, 2018

281. The Monkees: Christmas Party (2018)

Continuing the Monkees renaissance that began with 2016's Good Times! is the band's first ever Christmas album. Christmas Party follows the same blueprint as Good Times! It was produced by Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger. It also features prominent songwriters contributing new tunes. And all three living Monkees participated, with Davy Jones showing up via archival material.

If Good Times! was an unlikely confluence of my tastes (Monkees + Fountains of Wayne + XTC + Weezer), this one is even moreso. In addition to the return of those previous elements, Christmas Party has Peter Buck from R.E.M., a tune with lyrics by one of my favorite writers (Michael Chabon), backup vocals by singer/songwriter David Mead, and cover art by one of my favorite comic book artists (Michael Allred). Who at Rhino Records is inside my head?

As with my other Monkees reviews, I'll break things into categories.

New Songs
All four of these tunes were written new for this record, and feature Mickey on lead vocals.

Opening tune, Andy Partridge's "Unwrap You at Christmas" is catchy but somewhat creepy. The song's narrator is telling a woman, in essence, that all he wants for Christmas is her. That's all fine and good, but the repeated line imploring Santa to "please leave her at my door" paired with the sexual innuendo of the title lend a mildly predatory/possessive air.

Also lyrically puzzling is Rivers Cuomo's "What Would Santa Do." The song starts off as a screed against those without Christmas spirit, leading into a chorus wondering how Santa himself would handle these types. But the second verse finds the narrator coming home to find himself cuckolded by the jolly old elf. This makes the second shift into the chorus nonsensical. What would Santa do? He would steal your girl. Maybe none of this really matters, because the song has enough melody for at least three different songs, and Mickey sells it all with conviction.

Adam Schlesinger wrote "House of Broken Gingerbread" with Michael Chabon, and it completes the trilogy of lyrically-odd originals. In this case, at least, the lyrics accomplish what they set out to do, which is tell a tale of Christmas in the wake of divorce. There are two of everything, but nothing is quite right. Chabon's storytelling gift is evident throughout; think about how much is communicated in the lines: "The boyfriend's a dentist, the stepmom is cool / Dad gave me a brother / Mom promised a dog / And one of those French cakes disguised as a log." Schlesinger, of course, keeps it poppy throughout, making one wish for a whole Fountains of Wayne and Chabon album a la the Ben Folds and Nick Hornby's wonderful Lonely Avenue.

The final original, Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey's "Christmas Party" (the duo also play on the song) feels much more in line with the madcap Monkees spirit. Detailing a wild Christmas fete, and with its references to James Brown, Darlene Love, and Chuck Berry, serves as a tribute to the role pop, soul, and rock music have played in Christmas celebrations.

"Mele Kalikimaka," Davy Jones's take on the tune popularized by Bing Crosby, was recorded in 1991 for the CD release of Davy's 1977 Christmas record, Christmas Jones. The original vocal, ukelele, and guitar are intact, but Schlesinger and friends added new bass, guitar, and drums. Ditto for "Silver Bells." Both songs are good fits for Davy's peppy showtune persona.

The two reclusive / reluctant Monkees also show up in versions of Christmas classics. Michael Nesmith contributes a tastefully countrypolitan version of "The Christmas Song" and Peter Tork teams up with guitarist James Lee Stanley for a folksy, banjo-driven version of "Angels We Have Heard on High."

New Classics
Instead of relying on just standards, the album ranges out into some lesser-known Christmas songs as well. There's "Jesus Christ," a take on Big Star tune from 1979 that stays true to the ringing, contemplative spirit of the original. And "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday" - originally released by Wizzard (featuring Roy Wood from The Move and ELO) in 1973 - is a perfect fit for Mickey's voice.

Paul McCartney's 1979 "Wonderful Christmastime" is a divisive tune, largely because of its forward-thinking but semi-annoying synth line. I've recently discovered that the very best version is by The Shins, but the Monkees version ain't bad either, largely because - like the Shins version - it replaces those synths with an acoustic strum, and focuses on the strong songwriting underneath.

Papa Nez stays on the jazz theme with "Snowfall" a pretty version of the 1941 piece by the Claude Thornhill Orchestra. And Mickey gets to vamp it up on the R & B-flavored "Merry Christmas, Baby," a 1947 tune by Johnny Moore's Three Blazers that has also been covered by Otis Redding, Elvis Presley, and Bruce Springsteen.

Bonus Tracks
The Target version of the CD features two bonus tracks. The first is a 1967 recording of the Spanish traditional about Christ's birth, "Riu Chiu," which was featured in the original Monkees TV show, and finds all four Monkees singing a capella.

"Christmas is My Time of Year" was a one-off reunion single released in 1976 by Micky, Peter, and Davy under the cheeky name We Three Monkees. Arising out of the Dolenz, Jones, Boyce, and Hart project, the jaunty tune finds Mickey and Davy sharing vocals, which is always a treat.

It's hard to say if Christmas Party will become one of those Christmas records I spin every December, the way I do John Denver and the Muppets, the Vince Guaraldi Trio, Bing Crosby, and the Beach Boys, but it's an admirable effort. I do have two complaints: One is that the collaborative spirit that made Good Times! so great is not present here. Schedules and health were reportedly factors, but hearing Mickey and Mike harmonizing, and Peter playing guitar on all the songs was one of the joys of that album. The other problem is the fact that the album did not get a release of vinyl. Not only do I need to keep my run of Monkees vinyl intact, but that glorious Allred cover needs to be appreciated full size. Maybe Santa will bring it next year.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

I Wrote a Book!

I'm sure don't have to tell you it's been awhile since I've spent much time around these parts. I have a good excuse: I've been writing books instead of blog entries. My first book, a biography of children's author and critic Eleanor Cameron, came out this past spring (you can order it here or from your local bookstore).

My second book - The Hopefuls: Chasing a Rock 'n' Roll Dream in the Minnesota Music Scene - is obviously more germane to the blog at hand. It's a joint biography of four independent musicians from my former home city of Minneapolis / St. Paul. From the mid '90s to the end of the '00s, these four were at the center of a diverse and wide-ranging musical collective, encompassing several bands I love - Olympic HopefulsVicious Vicious, Alva Star, Spymob, Storyhill, and Kid Dakota, to name a few. The book traces each of their musical paths as they intersect and converge and diverge again.

The book is due out this November from McFarland & Company. I hope you'll check it out.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

280. The Monkees: Good Times (2016)

When I wrote about Weird Al's last album as a continuation of my every-album-reviewed series on him, I mentioned that the other bands who'd been a part of similar series (The Beatles, XTC, and The Monkees) wouldn't be putting out new material.

I guess I'll take that back, because here we are, with a new Monkees album, and with one of the members of XTC involved. Part of life's wonderfulness is its lack of predictability.

What was predictable was that new Monkees material would appear in a year ending with "6":  Their debut was in 1966, the semi-reunion (Dolenz, Jones, Boyce, and Hart) was 1976, the comeback as a trio happened in 1986, and the full-band studio reunion (Justus) came out in 1996. (Group infighting held them out of doing anything in 2006).

Good Times! was produced by John Hughes (not that one) and Adam Schlesinger (of Fountains of Wayne) and combines reclaimed tunes from the archives with newly-written ones from Monkees-loving songwriters and the boys themselves. In this way it's an album that's representative of all phases of the Monkees' recording career. Some have decried the fact that the boys made an album without Jones, but it's worth noting that of the Monkees' 11 studio albums, 4 were done without at least one of the four members.

When I wrote about the bands' original albums, I broke the songs into categories such as "The Classics" and "WTF" but that doesn't quite work with a new album, so I've devised new categories.

Old Songs
Very few bands' archives have been as well-mined as The Monkees' has, with b-sides, unreleased songs, rehearsals, and alternate versions all seeing the light of day thanks to Rhino's steady shepherding of their catalog. But somehow the band were able to uncover more songs they didn't get around to recording or finishing during their prodigious 1966-1970 studio spree.

It's a testament to just how much amazing material the band had at their disposal that songs by Harry Nilsson ("Good Times"), Gerry Goffin and Carole King ("Wasn't Born to Follow"), Neil Diamond ("Love to Love") went unused. All are here using the original '60s tracks given 2016 overdubs (mostly, it seems, in vocals). Nilsson's song is a bit of a trifle, but it's a fun one, and the idea to keep his original demo vocals and turn it into a duet with Mickey was inspired. It has a vitality that is lacking on, say, The Beatles' "Free as a Bird," which had a similar genesis.

Peter takes the lead on "Wasn't Born to Follow" and the tune has an instantly recognizable feel, despite not being evocative of any other song that I can identify.

The same can't quite be said of "Love to Love," which has elements that recall both "I'm a Believer" (the organ part) and "Solitary Man" (the descending guitar chords on the chorus). Perhaps this is why it never before saw the light of day. Even so, I can't quite blame the band for including it, as it ensures Davy Jones presence on the album, despite his 2012 death.

Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who are responsible for some of the Monkees' most recognizable tunes ("(Theme from) The Monkees," "Last Train to Clarksville," and "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone"), wrote "Whatever's Right," a pop confection with fun backup vocals from Nesmith, Mickey's sister Coco, and Bobby Hart himself.

And the king of bubblegum pop, Jeff Barry (who also produced the mostly-forgettable, and at that time final, 1970 Monkees album Changes), adds the bluesy "Gotta Give it Time."

New Songs by Outside Songwriters
There's an interesting dichotomy of approaches by the six songwriters brought in to contribute material. Both the gorgeous "Me & Magdalana" (written by Ben Gibbard) and the boppy "Our Own World" (written by Schlesinger) could slot easily into the songwriters' main projects (though in the case of "Me & Magdalana," nothing Death Cab could do could match the pairing of Mike Nesmith and Mickey Dolenz's voices.)

In contrast, Andy Partridge and Rivers Cuomo's songs ("You Bring the Summer" and "She Makes Me Laugh") are overt attempts to write in a '60s style. "She Makes Me Laugh" would need a major overhaul to sound like a Weezer song, and XTC would have to go back to their abandoned Zither Records bubblegum album to make "You Bring the Summer" fit into their catalog. Though it aims at psychedelia rather than pop, I would put Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller's "Birth of an Accidental Hipster" into this same category. One would strain to hear any direct lineage of The Jam or Oasis in the song.

What's interesting is that, to my ear, neither approach seems to have an advantage. The danger, I suppose, of the Gibbard and Schlesinger method is that it could overreach in trying to make the Monkees sound modern (which has been done; see Pool It! for proof), but both guys write in such a classic pop form that it doesn't matter. The pitfall of the throwback style of the others is that it can come off as parody. Luckily all three songs are strong enough to avoid that, mainly because they are absent of any direct comparison to classic Monkees tunes.

New Songs by Monkees
Each of the living Monkees gets a Headquartersish chance to do their own stuff, too. Peter Tork's "Little Girl" is a bit of a cheat in the "new song" category, since he wrote the song back in the '60s as a sequel to "I Wanna Be Free," and he is known to have performed live at least a couple of times in the '70s. Even so, it was never put to wax or plastic or compressed data file before now. The tune is a sweet one, and though Peter is not the most gifted lead vocalist, he makes up for it in believability.

Mike's "I Know What I Know" is a musically understated love song with none of the country rock flavor he became known for. It's got a weariness and wisdom that suits his age. The same can be said of Mickey's "I Was There (and I'm Told I Had a Good Time)," a tongue-in-cheek romp that plays on memory and bravado in a self-depricating way.

The Bonus Tracks
There are four extra tracks that aren't part of the official album. Two can be purchased as bonus tracks on the deluxe edition, and two have been released as a 7" that comes with the vinyl edition of the album (but only if purchased at Barnes and Noble). All are easy enough to find via YouTube.

Zach Rogue of Rogue Wave wrote "Terrifying," a sweet folky love song with Beach Boys touches and Mickey on lead. The song is in the category of "Me & Magdalana" and "Our Own World" in that it could fit on a Rogue Wave album. It helps that Zach's voice is not dissimilar to Mickey's. Peter plays keys and Mike the guitar on this one.

"Me & Magdalana ver. 2," gives the tune a faster tempo with a prominent chugging, ringing guitar riff that recalls the Byrds. It's still a great song but I prefer the way the first version keeps the focus on the harmonies and lyrics.

The 7" leads off with another crackerjack Partridge composition featuring Mickey on lead vocals. "Love's What I Want" sounds a bit more like an XTC song than "You Bring the Summer" does, especially the verses, which one could easily hear Partridge singing (Mickey obviously kept the phrasing the same; listen to the line "sorrow black as pitch"). The song is bolstered by a 12 string, and even incorporates Mickey's Headquarters tune "Randy Scouse Git" into its outro. Pete Thomas (of Elvis Costello and the Attractions) drums on the track.

The B side is "A Better World," a tune written by Peter Tork's brother Nick. It features a charming vocal by Peter and a very '60s sentiment of working together to improve conditions for everyone around us.

Overall, Good Times! is a fantastic celebration of everything that made and continues to make the Monkees great. I might quibble with the sequencing being a bit too Micky-heavy in the first half of the album, but that's really a minor thing. Anyone who ever had any affection for The Monkees will be done proud by this record. And if it is the band's final statement on record, it's a great way to go out. Then again, 2026 is just around the corner...