Thursday, January 29, 2009

208. The Monkees: Headquarters (1967)

Here's the album that quashed a thousand arguments, the Kryptonite to any Monkees naysayers. Yes, after the rushed debacle that was More of the Monkees, the boys took control, ousted maestro Don Kirshner, and recruited Turtles member Chip Douglas (NOT one of My Three Sons) to produce. Their vow: To perform the entire album themselves.

Well, almost. As the note on the original back album cover says, other personnel handled the cello, French horn, and some bass parts. Otherwise, it's all Peter, Mike, Mickey, and Davy, on bass, guitar, drums, and tambourine, respectively. The boys also wrote 8 of the 14 songs themselves. The resulting album is less professional than The Monkees' previous albums, but in a good way.

The Classics

By the admittedly narrow definition of a "classic" as a song that is instantly recognizable, there are none on Headquarters. But two songs could fit on the farther end of the spectrum. The gentle Shades of Gray made a greatest hits compilation here and there. It's a great example of band chemistry: Davy and Peter take turns on vocals, and Mike's signature pedal steel guitar is prominent. Mickey's military style drumming anchors it all. The lyrics are the dictionary definition of earnest, but still manage to connect. For Pete's Sake is the other song novice Monkeemainacs might recognize. It played over the closing credits of the T.V. show for awhile. It's a groovy document-of-its-time, with lyrics like "we were born to love one another / we must be what we're going to be / and what we have to be / is free" it's clear the Summer of Love was fast approaching. Though Peter wrote the song (thus the title) Mickey takes the lead and does his usual bang-up job.

The Surprises

Did The Monkees help invent country rock? Consider that The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, often credited with that achievement came out a year after Headquarters, which features no fewer than four country rock gems. Opener You Told Me kicks a rockin' banjo, You Just May Be the One features a melodic bassline and Mike Nesmith's powerful vocal, and the pedal steel-driven I'll Spend My Life With You sounds like a lost John Denver song. But the best of the country rock lot is Sunny Girlfriend, Nesmith's bouncy ode to an enigmatic woman.

Zilch, while not a song, is one of the most intriguing moments on the album. Each Monkee takes an odd phrase and they say them in a round, creating a somewhat creepy effect. Mickey's phrase "nevermind the furthermore, the plea is self defense" shows up in the next song, the Chuck Berry-aping No Time. It's a loose rave-up written by all four members of the band, Mickey even steals a line from The Beatles when he says, "Rock on Ringo for George one time."

Speaking of The Beatles, they also get a mention in what might be the album's best song, Mickey Dolenz's Randy Scouse Git. "The four kings of EMI are sitting stately on the floor" he tells us in the stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Along the way there's some kettle drum, boppy piano verses, scatting, and a shouty chourus that reminds one of the culture clash of the times: "Why don't you hate who I hate / Kill who I kill to be free?" It's a brilliant moment for the band.

The final surprise is I Can't Get Her Off Of My Mind a ragtime piano piece with Davy on vocals that shows off the novice band's versitility (and some great harmonies).

Comme Ci, Comme Ca

These songs are just okay for me, dawg. Early Morning Blues and Greens and Forget That Girl are both Davy vehicles. The former features a pleasantly freaky organ solo in the middle and the latter was written by Chip Douglas and features sad lyrics and interesting harmonies.

WTF?

Considering that they were working without supervision, the band stayed surprisingly on the rails. But there are a couple of strange moments. Band 6, a pointless attempt at the Looney Tunes theme contributes nothing musically, but does lend an anything-goes spirit to the record. Boyce and Hart's Mr. Webster, however, doesn't lend much of anything. It's a downer of a tune about a disgruntled bank employee who robs the bank on the eve of his retirement party. It's not a bad song, but seems out of place on the record. Plus, it reminds me too much of Richard Cory by Simon and Garfunkel, which I like even less.

The Bonus Tracks

Unlike some of the other Rhino reissues, Headquarters actually features some vital bonuses. All of your Toys, a potential single barred from release by the fact that the songwriter was not part of the band's publishing company (Heaven forbid someone else get their money). It's a shame that the excellent The Girl I Knew Somewhere, which has since been included on several hits packages, was never on a proper Monkees album. It's here in the Nesmith-sung version. Also notable is a demo version of Nine Times Blue (a studio version appeared on Missing Links). It might be my favorite Nesmith song, and I prefer this version because of Mike's funny intro: "The only difference between me and Peter is that I'm just stone legal."

The other bonus tracks are rawer. Peter Gunn's Gun is a jam that doesn't offer much besides a glimpse into the looseness of the album sessions. Same for Jericho, but there's some funny Mickey riffing, and an impromptu version of the spiritual Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho. Pillow Time is basically a recorded rehearsal of a song that later appeared on The Monkees Present. Mickey sings the song unaccompanied, and mixes in a lot of banter, including a plea for hamburgers.

Overall, Headquarters was not only a superior album to its two predecessors, it was also more representative of the boys, the times, and even the T.V. show. Sadly, the band would never be this consistently good again.

Grade: A
Fave Songs: Randy Scouse Git / Sunny Girlfriend

Saturday, January 24, 2009

207. Ghostbusters II (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (1989)

It was 20 years ago today. Saved by the Bell was just debuting on the airwaves, Tim Burton's Batman was the top grossing film, and there was a Bush in the White House (we thought he was pretty bad, but that was before we met his son).

Over the next few months, I'll be looking back at 5 seminal (well, depending on your definition of the word seminal) albums from 1989. First up...

1989 marks the year I first became completely susceptible to movie marketing machines. There was Batman of course. Everyone bought into that. But I was also hyped-as-I-could-be about Ghostbusters II. I remember discussing it with my neighborhood friends, pouring over the logo with the ghost holding up two fingers. I was all over the fast food promotions (little electronic noisemakers and 32 oz. glow-in-the-dark cups from Hardees). I had the movie poster on my wall. I saw it once, and then I saw it again. The second time I had lied and told my grandpa I hadn't seen it yet so he would take me; that has always weighed on my conscience a little bit. It was after that second viewing with my grandpa that we stopped in the record store and he bought me the soundtrack (on cassette, of course). I wore it out.

Looking at the album now, I'm struck by the stylistically diverse mix of artists on the record and how it remains cohesive despite that. It helps that save a couple, all of the songs have some sort of ghoulish bent to them.

Things start out with Bobby Brown's On Our Own, which was more or less the theme for the movie. And while Bobby is no Ray Parker, Jr., he does deliver a fairly memorable tune. The song, written and produced by L.A.Reid and Babyface, is a textbook example of New Jack Swing. It shot to #2, despite the goofy rap that recaps the film's plot ("Had 'em thrown' parties for a bunch of children / While all the while slime was under the building.")

Bobby offers a second tune as well, We're Back. Brown wrote and produced the song himself, and does a pretty good job. The lyrics are average, but the keyboard hooks are plentiful and the danceablity is high, especially if you know how to do the Running Man or the Cabbage Patch.

Strangely enough, Brown's former bandmates New Edition also appear. Supernatural was produced by Time drummer Jellybean Johnson so as you'd expect, it's highly rhythmic. As far as I can tell, it's about being in love with a woman who's really a ghost. But maybe that's just a metaphor.

James "J.T." Taylor, former lead singer of Kool & The Gang, offers up The Promised Land. It's a subdued (for the '80s, at least) tune addressing the ills of society. As I think about it now, it's very appropriate for the theme of the film, namely that people need to treat each other better. Fun Fact: So, folk singer James Taylor not only has an album called JT (thus making that quoted distinction useless) he also has a song called The Promised Land!

In the rap segment, Doug E. Fresh & The Get Fresh Crew offer up Spirit. Doug gets a little bit of beatboxing in on the bridge, but most of the song is comprised of a spooky keyboard and a rapped recap of the movie's plot, which is even more detailed than Brown's: "
Now that evil's presence make it pleasant in every resident / and take a mother's newborn baby and Dana's the lady / to build an establishment for an evil magician on a mission in the picture position." Sure, it's silly, but it's all in good fun. The immortal RUN-D.M.C. also make an appearance, offering their take on the Ghostbusters theme. This one uses Ray Parker Jr.'s original as a base, beefing up the drums, increasing the tempo, and adding a skip-to-my-lou guitar backing. However, their rap is a tiny bit wack, especially when D.M.C. says, "They be dustin' off ghosts / Like true ghost dusters."

After 6 songs in the hip hop arena, you think you know where things are going, then suddenly pops up an Oingo Boingo song! Before you get too indignant, remember that Oingo Boingo were the kings of the '80s soundtrack. They had songs in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Back to School, Weird Science, Sixteen Candles, Teen Wolf, Too, and Bachelor Party. Their song here, Flesh 'N Blood, fits the spooky mood perfectly. It's no surprise that band leader Danny Elfman eventually became the singing voice of Jack Skellington.

So we can understand Oingo Boingo, but how to explain the Elton John tune (Love is a Cannibal) that comes next? Well, I suppose the simple answer is that he was recording for MCA Records at the time, and that's who put out the soundtrack. The song, a musical descendant of Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting, would probably never make a list of memorable Elton tunes. And as I've said before, I always have a gitchy feeling about Elton pretending to be straight ("Woman is a criminal / Oh she got the hunger / Man is the animal"), but the song is catchy for what it is.

Continuing in a classic rock vein, next we have Glen Frey's bouncy-synth-and-squealing-electric-guitar opus Flip City. Though he had some luck as a modern '80s rocker on other soundtracks (Beverly Hills Cop and Miami Vice), it doesn't necessarily hold here. And it's weird to me to play this song next to say, Peaceful Easy Feeling, and realize it's the same artist.

The album closes out the same way the movie does, with Jackie Wilson's (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher. In the film, the 'busters use slime to animate the Statue of Liberty and subsequently broadcast this song to the angry people of New York, thus uniting them in a spirit of goodwill. Yes, the song is that good, even if the original version is replaced here by a synthtastic version by the womanly-voiced Howard Huntsberry. When I was younger, I couldn't get over the fact that it was a man singing.

Even 20 years later, I still hold a fondness this album. Now does that mean I'd recommend that you run out an buy a copy? No, I recognize that this is definitely a case where my nostalgia clouds my judgement. But sometimes, that's the way it should be.

Grade: B+
Fave Songs: Flesh 'N Blood and On Our Own

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Rock Bottom: Elvis Costello

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the AllMusic Guide (for the critical point-of-view) and Amazon.com (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not always agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect
that. I'll also offer a considered alternative. Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about Amazon.com. I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question.

* * *

Thanks to Elvis Costello, I have to add another Rock Bottom exception. The cover album, while holding the potential to be spectacularly bad, cannot be an artist's worst album. They didn't write the songs and therefore are not fully responsible. If not for this caveat, Elvis Costello's worst album would definitely be Kojak Variety, an all-over-the-map R & B and rockabilly covers collection from 1995. You can't even buy the thing new anymore, apparently.

Since we don't have that option, we'll have to look elsewhere. And we don't have to look far, as both fan and critical consensus center on two albums: 1984's Goodbye Cruel World and 1991's Mighty Like A Rose. Critics seem equally averse to the two. Even the usually-cheery Amazon.com Editorial team calls the latter "the least essential record in the man's catalog."

But the fans are a little more decisive, the contrarians in the bunch having taken Mighty Like A Rose under their wing. However, those few who champion Goodbye Cruel World rarely do so without apology. Add that to the fact that Elvis himself wrote in the Rykodisc liner notes to the CD "Congratulations! You've just purchased our worst album," and the choice is pretty clear.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine of the AllMusic Guide, says that Goodbye Cruel World contains "ill-conceived, unformed songs." He then complains about the dated sound of the production, and contradicts his earlier statement by saying "once the sound of the album settles in, the strength of these songs is apparent." Well, which is it Stephen? He also calls the performances by Elvis and the Attractions "uninspired" and "muted."

Amazon.com reviews (as usual) cover the whole range of criticism and are short on detail. Some dislike Goodbye Cruel World's mix of "happy" production and sad/angry lyrics. Others just find the whole thing "dreary and unimaginative." And then there's the perspective of Metal King: "I admit Elvis Costello's body of work is horrible, but he does have one good song in his whole catalog and it's on this album. The Only Flame In Town is by far his best song and is his only song that is worth mentioning to this date (I can't see him writing anything in the future to change this)." Okay, then. Finally, we have A.B., who claims in his review title that, "like sex and pizza, even bad Elvis Costello is still pretty good."

A little background first. Elvis and the Attractions had been on an amazing run of albums starting with the debut, My Aim Is True, in 1977. After that, he released a new classic record every year (in 1981, there were two). In 1983 he teamed up with production team Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who at that point were fresh but flush, having produced hit albums for Madness and Dexy's Midnight Runners (they'd go on to work with They Might Be Giants, Morrissey, and Bush). The results were Punch the Clock, which featured the hits Shipbuilding and Everyday I Write the Book. Based on that success, they decided to try another collaboration for the next album.

But, Elvis had gone through a divorce that year and was not in a happy place. He quickly realized that the tone of the songs he'd written clashed with Langer and Winstanley's production style. After some battles, Elvis explains, they compromised. Some songs got the shiny pop treatment, while others were left (mostly) alone. He calls it a fatal decision, but I don't agree.

The album opens with the previously-mentioned The Only Flame In Town, which features Daryl Hall on background vocals. In sound it's admittedly more Hall and Oates than Elvis Costello and the Attractions, so I can understand why some fans felt betrayed by it at the time. But given the way Costello's style has diversified in the years since (from collaborations with Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, and Allen Toussaint to Sinatra-style crooning to country to classical) it now seems silly to hate it because it's too different.

I Wanna Be Loved, a cover of an obscure R & B tune by Willie Mitchell, is the only other song that truly sounds over-produced, mostly thanks to the cooing female background vocals on the chorus and a saxaphone solo in the bridge. It's far from a bad tune though. In fact, Elvis' emotional vocal completely sells the song for me.

Listening to the rest of the album I'm hard-pressed to find much to complain about. The melodies and performances are strong, and the lyrics are uniformly intriguing. Two songs especially stand out as noteworthy. Home Truth is one of those it-kinda-feels-good-to-feel-sad songs that documents a dissolving relationship. "But none of these things seem to matter," Elvis sings, "since we've grown apart / I'd put back the pieces of what's shattered / But I don't know where to start."

Love Field
, the only song from Goodbye Cruel World to make regular appearances on various best-of packages, is the other clear standout. Keyboardist Steve Nieve offers up a carnival organ over a wash of open guitar chords. The Attractions' musical chemistry is clear, even if the lyrics aren't. I've heard this song dozens of times and still can't tell you what a "love field" is.

Most of the other songs fall into the Interesting Album Tracks category. Room With No Number, which would have fit well on Armed Forces, boasts an especially strong Attractions performance. The Madness influnence of the producers is obvious. Inch by Inch has a film noir feel and some great lines ("Take off everything / Or tear me off a strip / Like a lady in the chamber and another in the clip"). The soullessness of modern life is the subject of Worthless Thing, and it has only gotten more topical as the years have marched on.

The Comedians is a shuffling tune with an attractive musical background that obscures the vocals (and thus the lyrics, which address hangers-on). Roy Orbison covered a radically different version of the song on his final album, Mystery Girl. Sour Milk Cow Blues is a strong number with some vaguely '80s effects that make the bridge sound like a Huey Lewis track (to be fair, many members of the News backed Elvis on his debut album), but the lyrics (addressing what it's like to see the person you love become a completely different person) and melody are spot-on.

The Great Unknown mentions Danny Boy (Irish fold ballad) and Delilah (a 1968 Tom Jones song) and the seeming death of the old standards: "What shall we sing / At a wedding or a wake / Whose name shall we cherish / And for whose sake?" Elvis seems to recognize the fleeting nature of popular song, and it's a self-defeating line of thought for someone in his line of work. Cleverly, the final verse also mentions the a mix-up between the songs Wooden Heart (an Elvis Presley tune) and Hearts of Oak (the march of he UK Royal Navy).

The album closes with Peace In Our Time, a sarcastic little ditty about gaining peace through nuclear war. The song offers some pointed words for President Reagan and his Star Wars program: "There's already one spaceman in the White House / What do you want another one for?"

I hope it's clear by now that I don't think Goodbye Cruel World is Elvis' worst moment. Sure, it was a step down from his early albums, but I actually like it a little better than Punch the Clock, and certainly more than some of his later albums. So I turn my attention back to Mighty Like a Rose. Sorry contrarians, but I have to agree with the Amazon Editorial review. While it does contain the classic The Other Side of Summer (and the line "Was it a millionaire who said 'imagine no possessions'?"), the majority of the album is overlong, Dylan-esque rambling.

Anyway, the single greatest thing about Goodbye Cruel World is that its failure in the eyes of its creator led to some self-reflection. Elvis took a year off and ended up making his best album, the wonderful King Of America.

Author's Note: This is album review #206.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

205. Sean Fournier: Oh My (2008)

The Interweb has revolutionized countless aspects of our world, not the least of which is self-expression.

Artists, musicians, filmmakers, photographers, crafters, and writers are all now able to put their work out there with ginormous potential to be seen and heard. There are those rare artists who create as an instinct and have no need for others to react, but most are not content to create in a vacuum. They want other people to experience what they've done.

Singer/songwriter Sean Fournier is one such individual. He's so intent on getting his music to the masses that he's giving it away. Oh My, a 6-song sampler, features new recordings of songs from Fournier's 2005 and 2006 albums, as well as one new tune. Offering a product for free to get people interested is nothing new, but it is a good idea. And it also shows a confidence in said product.

In Fournier's case, the confidence is justified. His folk/pop sound is pleasing, well-crafted, and genuine. It was also a smart idea to include a cross-section of "greatest hits" to give listeners a good idea of the full scope of his sound.

Three songs come from his debut, Put the World on Stop. The title track is the catchiest and most lyrically adept of the bunch (who doesn't wish their life had a pause button?). Goodbye is hypnotic. The piano-driven, string-laden ballad Another Like You showcases Fournier's easy tenor.

The two songs from Fournier's sophomore album, Paper Tiger, really stand out, with a polished, radio-ready sound. Opener Broken Stereo marries a shuffling beat with a strong melody. It's about unrequited love, but could also be addressed to potential listeners: "Met you once or twice but you probably don't remember me / 'cause I go undiscovered / You confuse me for another." Falling for You is a sweet love song, and like Put the World On Stop, it features the words "oh my god" in the chorus, thus the title of the EP.

The one completely new song in the collection, Holding the Hand of the Hurricane, seems a little bit out-of-place. It's got a dark mood and an edgier sound, thanks to some vocal distortion effects, and cool, eerie, background vocals. After the uber-melodic tunes on rest of the EP, it's definitely a change of pace. I'm just not sure I wanted a change of pace...

As they say on Reading Rainbow, don't take my word for it. It's simple enough to listen for yourself: http://www.sean-fournier.com/ohmy. For me, at least, Fournier's gambit worked. I plan to buy some of his other tracks from iTunes, and I'll definitely have my ear out for what Fournier does in the future.

Grade: B+
Fave Song: Put the World On Stop

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

204. The Monkees: More of the Monkees (1967)

On the original back cover of 1967's More of the Monkees, there's an interesting bit of propaganda from supervising producer Don Kirschner saying basically, "Look, I know we lied to you last time, but this time we won't pretend the boys wrote the songs. But look who did!" Kirshner was on his way out anyway.

Though he'd been instrumental in the musical side of the Monkees empire, he was also a victim of its success. While Davy, Peter, Mickey, and Mike were out on tour, the T.V. show ruled the ratings, and I'm a Believer topped the charts, Kirshner capitalized on the frenzy by rushing out an album made up of songs the boys had already put the finishing touches on the previous summer and fall. He slapped a photo of the four Monkees wearing clothes from J.C. Penney on the front cover and called it More of the Monkees. The four band members were barely involved.

Mike Nesmith was especially furious. Already battling accusations that they weren't real musicians, the band had been robbed of a chance to prove it. Instead, the album title was frustratingly accurate. Everything that made the first album feel less-than-genuine (songs written by other songwriters, played by studio musicians, and featured in the T.V. show) was repeated. What's worse, many of the songs weren't as strong as the ones on the band's debut.

In a bit of angry hyperbole, Nesmith called it "the worst album in the history of the world." It's not. It's not even the worst album in the Monkees' catalog, but it is a disappointment. Here's the lowdown, broken into five handy categories:

The Classics
I'm A Believer, an undeniable pop composition from Neil Diamond, is so good that not even a Smashmouth could ruin it. The Monkees' rendition is definitive, mostly thanks to Mickey's inspired vocal. Speaking of great vocals, (I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone rides Mickey's moxy and a garage band feel to immortality. As I kid I especially enjoyed the series of lines that goes, "When I first met you girl you didn't have no shoes / Now you're walkin' 'round like you're front page news / You've been awful careful 'bout the friends you choose / But you won't find my name in your book of who's whos."

The Surprises
The organ-driven album opener She makes unexpected use of minor chord change to tell the tale of a heartbreaker ("And now I know why she keeps me hangin' round / She needs someone to walk on / So her feet don't touch the ground."). It was a contribution from Boyce and Hart, who had been so instrumental in the first album and would continue to be an integral part of the Monkees' story. More on that later.

Mary, Mary, written by Nesmith, features a groovy beat, skipping lead guitar, and another strong Mickey vocal (do you see a theme?). RUN-DMC picked up on that irresistable drum bit and reinterpreted the song on their 1988 Tougher Than Leather album. Everyone knows I'm a Believer, but Neil Diamond also wrote Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow). Davy takes the lead to tell a unique tale of a man who has 24 hours to choose between two girls (Mary who has "lips like strawberry pie," and Sandra who has long hair). Who does he pick? The song never tells.

Finally, The Kind of Girl I Could Love is a signature Mike composition: Brief, countrish, with a great bridge. The only thing atypical about it is the fact that the title words are actually featured in the song itself! Though, one notices that he's not telling the girl in question that he loves her, just that she's the kind of girl he could love. No promises there.

Comme Ci, Comme Ca
When Love Comes Knockin' At Your Door is a scratchy Neil Sedaka / Carole Bayer tune that lets Davy be as twee as he pleases. No thanks. Sometime in the Morning is a pedestrian Carole King / Gerry Goffin song, and would probably be more interesting with King herself on vocals. Hold On Girl has some interesting instrumental bits, but is hardly a standout.

WTF?
There are three awful missteps on More of the Monkees. I'll list them from least to most egregiously bad. Your Auntie Grizelda is a Peter Tork novelty showcase that features (no joke) baby noise scatting. The liner notes indicate that producers had a hard time finding proper material for Peter, and this is clear proof. Laugh is a Davy Jones trainwreck with awful lyrics ("Laugh, when you go to a party / And you can't tell the boys from the girls"). Davy also takes lead on what may be the single worst Monkees song in existence, a turd called The Day We Fall in Love. In a breathy voice, Davy recites a love poem (sample lines: "There'll be birds singing everywhere / And the wind will be blowing through your hair / I'll look in your eyes / And wait for the prize"). The musical accompaniment is minimal, allowing the awfulness of the lyrics to take center stage.

The Bonus Tracks
One problem with the bonus tracks on these album reissues is that the compilers wanted to avoid overlap with the Missing Links series (collecting rare Monkees tracks), so there wasn't much left of quality. Mostly you end up with alternate versions of songs from the same or other albums. I'll Spend My Life With You and Don't Listen to Linda both appear on later albums in official versions. Both Neil Diamond songs get second plays, inessentially. There's even an alternate version of I Don't Think You Know Me, one of the bonus tracks on The Monkees. Peter takes the lead vocals and unfortunately can't top Mickey's performance.

Don Kirshner's rush-the-second album plan paid off in sales, if not in quality. It also was the second-to-lat straw for his relationship with the Monkees. Soon after More of the Monkees was relased, the band flexed their newfound muscle, and Kirshner was forced out. As tends to happen, the monster he created turned on him.

Grade: C
Fave Song: Mary, Mary

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

203. The Monkees: The Monkees (1966)

In the summer of 1986 I was 9 years old, and my mom shipped me off to Kentucky to spend two weeks with my grandparents. I was terribly homesick, and my mom tried to assuage this by sending letters and postcards. My step-dad also got into the act, sending me a tape for my Walkman along with a note that read, "I saw this and got it for you because I know they're one of your favorite groups." The tape was Then & Now...The Best of the Monkees and they weren't just one of my favorite groups, they were my only favorite group.

That was the summer that The Monkees experienced a career revival, courtesy of reruns on MTV and Nick at Nite. Being a connoisseur of both pop music and zaniness, I quickly fell under the spell. But that tape took things to another level. Along with a couple of "Weird Al" tapes that I had probably somewhat tired of, it was all I had to listen to, so that's what I did. Over and over and over.

In the mid-1990's Rhino Records released remastered CDs of all of The Monkees' albums. Being possessed of a collector's mindset, I quickly amassed all 9 of them, along with three albums full of unreleased tracks (the Missing Links series). In my mind, those Rhino releases are still the gold standard for CD reissues. They have original artwork, generous liner notes, great sound quality, and (usually) relevant bonus tracks.

So, in honor of that standard, and of my childhood obsession, I'll be spending a fraction of my 2009 reviewing every single Monkees release.

First up, the 1966 release that started it all, The Monkees. This album has always been one of my least favorites in the band's catalog, and I don't quite know why. Is it because it kind of feels like a soundtrack to the T.V. show than a true rock album (it starts out with (Theme from) The Monkees, a fine piece of music, but a T.V. theme nonetheless)? Is it because I know how little control the four guys had over the record and its songs?

Monkees fans like myself bristle at the suggestion that they were a fake band. We'll come at you with a variety of evidence/arguments to the contrary. They made one album where they wrote and performed the whole thing! If the four hadn't had talent the band would have gone nowhere, T.V. show or not! Plenty of well-respected and beloved artists (Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley) didn't write their own songs. And the Monkees fabricated origin is no less organic than the band that meets each other via newspaper advertisements or flyers on telephone poles. The proof is in the pudding: Like it or not, the Monkees made some of the most memorable pop songs of the '60s.

Post Milli Vanilli / C & C Music Factory and in the midst of American Idol frenzy, it all almost seems quaint to get up in arms about a band being too fabricated. But the '60s were definitely not the time to seem inauthentic or purposefully commercial, and the band and it's handlers didn't exactly help themselves at first. Some of the anger against the Monkees was obviously jealousy at their wild success. I'm sure there were those who felt Peter, Mike, Mickey, and Davy hadn't paid their dues. In fact, a persistent rumor says the Byrds' So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star ("Sell your soul to the company / Who are waiting there to sell plastic ware") was directed at them, though Roger McGuinn has denied it.

And then there was the misrepresentation factor. At first, it wasn't widespread knowledge that there was a group of seasoned songwriters and players behind the Monkees sound, and the back album cover certainly didn't help things. It gives a brief bio of each Monkee, accompanied by a bolded statement like, "Plays guitar and sings." This is basically deception by omission. Yes, Mickey plays drums, just not on any of these songs. Many of the songs feature players from songwriter/producer Bobby Hart's band, Candy Store Prophets (great name, huh?). In fact, the only instrumental contribution on any of these songs is from Peter Tork, who is one of six (!) listed guitarists on Papa Gene's Blues.

To be fair, by most accounts the Monkees themselves were victims, not victimizers. Michael Nesmith especially fought to contribute musically. He succeeded somewhat, landing two songs on The Monkees. One is the aforementioned Papa Gene's Blues, a charming country tune with a typically (for Nesmith at least) obtuse title. The other is Sweet Young Thing, a preview of the southern psychedelica Nesmith would start trading in a few albums later. Strangely, it was co-written with legendary composing team Gerry Goffin and Carole King.

Those two were also responsible for one of the album's best songs, Take a Giant Step. Mickey takes the lead and listening now it strikes me how outside-the-box the song is. Yeah it's got a great melody, but that bring-it-down-build-it-up dynamic and the heavy percussion along with a harpsichord give it that little something extra. The album's other highlight is the band's first number one hit, Last Train To Clarksville. It's clearly Byrds-derived, so if Roger McGuinn had written So You Wanna Be a Rock 'N Roll Star about the Monkees no one could really have blamed him.

Other songs don't fare as well. I'll admit my bias now that I am not a huge Davy Jones fan. His songs always seemed just a bit too twee for my tastes. Even so, he does well for himself on The Monkees. I'll Be True To You is a '50s style ballad with a spoken word bit and some pretty harmonies. I Wanna Be Free is similarly prosaic, but still offers an interesting counterpoint to the '60s pop of the rest of the record. However, I have to disagree when liner note writer Andrew Sandoval says, "It may very well be Jones' best recorded performance." No, no way. The sprightly This Just Doesn't Seem To Be My Day is a rockier moment for Jones, though it still comes off as more Herman's Hermits than Rolling Stones. It's a good companion for the earlier, Mickey-sung Tomorrow's Gonna Be Another Day.

The album is rounded out by the shouty Saturday's Child and a groovy stab at a Twist and Shout kind of tune called Let's Dance On. The album's worst song is also its last. Gonna Buy Me a Dog is an inane Boyce and Hart composition which Mickey and Davy didn't take seriously in the studio. Though straightforward versions were recorded, a goofy "madcap" version with the boys bantering and telling Vaudeville jokes while barely keeping up with the song was the one that made the album. It's mildly amusing and captures the boys' personalities well, but doesn't hold up to repeated listens.

Rhino's reissue include three bonus tracks. Two are inessential: I Can't Get Her Off Of My Mind (a shuffling Davy showcase that appeared officially on their third album, Headquarters) and the shortened T.V. version of (Theme from) The Monkees. I Don't Think You Know Me, another Goffin and King tune, is the only real treasure, with with Mike and Mikey sharing lead vocal duties.

So why is The Monkees one of my least favorite album from the group? Maybe it's just that middle level blah. It's not bad enough to inspire the contrarian in me to look for some ironic merit in it. And it's not good enough for the cheerleader in me to rave about. Most bands have an artistic arc to their career. They start out low and build. The Monkees started somewhere in the middle. It would get both better and much worse from here.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: Take a Giant Step

Monday, January 05, 2009

24 Pages

I know what you are thinking: Paul doesn't have enough blogs. Well, we are on the same page about that, so I've decided to start a new one.

So please welcome a geeky little brother to this music blog, its corollary music film blog (Baby, I'm A Star), the dormant Brain Clouds comic repository, and the rarely-touched essay blog (To Try). It's called 24 Pages, and it's dedicated to comic books.

If you have any interest in that realm, take a look. If you don't, no one will think any less of you.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Rock Bottom: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the AllMusic Guide (for the critical point-of-view) and Amazon.com (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not always agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect
that. I'll also offer a considered alternative. Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about Amazon.com. I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question.

* * *

It couldn't have been any easier. Fans agree. Critics agree. I agree. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' 2002 release The Last DJ is their worst album ever.

Our old friend Stephen Thomas Erlewine at the AllMusic guide breaks out the dictionary when he calls the album "stultifying" which can be a legal term for mentally unsound, but also means ineffective or illogical. His ultimate conclusion about The Last DJ: "It's the first true flop in a career that, until now, had none."

Over on Amazon.com, Wade, a first time reviewer advises, "Don't take this album if it is offered to you for free because you'll still feel cheated that your time was wasted in listening to it." Matthew Meyers adds, "This gets one star because (a), there isn't a lower rating bracket, and (b) the CD itself functions in my CD player." But it's Dr. Hugh C. Paltry that cuts to the quick: "Surely the best revenge against the peurile 'tastemakers' is to make and be successful with really great music, instead of this mediocre collection."

Petty, usually a sturdy bastion of quality rock music, obviously faltered. What happened?

No better service has been done to a band and its legacy than what Peter Bogdonavich's 2007 documentary Runnin' Down A Dream did for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The four-hour long documentary revealed a mythology and provided a historical significance for a band most people probably took for granted. Petty himself came off as articulate, sharp, thoughtful, and funny. He also seemed like a man at peace with himself and his place both in the world and the music industry.

It's interesting because just 5 years earlier, Petty was clearly an unhappy camper. In a 2002 interview with Rolling Stone magazine's David Wild entitled "Ten Things That Piss Off Tom Petty," he rails against radio, rap lyrics, record labels, teen pop starlets, and concert ticket prices (he says his top ticket price is $65, though I think I paid at least $20 more than that to see him this past summer).

Not suprisingly, this interview was a part of the media push for The Last DJ. It was advertised as a concept album about the greed and corruption of the pop music industry. This was a good idea in theory. You see, Petty has always fought for his rights as an artist. He did this most famously in 1981 when MCA Records planned to sell his new album for $9.98, which was a dollar more than usual. Petty threatened to change the album's title from Hard Promises to $8.98 if the record company didn't back down. They did.

Fighting against the man is always cool in rock and roll, but there's a fine line between being a rebel and a curmudgeon. The former often implies a sort of activistism, misguided or not. The latter, however, is marked soley by idle negative complaining. I'm sure Petty saw The Last DJ as an act of rebellion, as biting the hands of his master. Unfortunately, since his songs merely complain about the problems without offering solutions, and since the album itself was released by a major label with all the usual trappings (print ads, tour, interviews with major media), his message was toothless.

There were other undercurrents working against him as well. Petty's previous albums, She's The One and Echo, had failed to ignite the hearts and minds of anyone besides his most devoted fans. His popularity had clearly declined. Whether this turn inspired the negativity and anger of The Last DJ or not, it still could be easily interpreted that way, painting Petty as a petulant, spoiled rock star who was not getting enough attention.

The sad part is that The Last DJ isn't even really a bad album.

Though it is supposedly a concept album, only 3 of the songs explicitly take on the music industry: the title track, Money Becomes King, and Joe. The Last DJ is a musically pristine and typically catchy tale of a DJ who plays and says what he likes and is ousted for it. In the days of Clear Channel chokehold it's timely and accurate, but is it compelling or clever? Not really. Money Becomes King is a plodding tale of an artist named Johnny who sells out, starts charging outrageous ticket prices (his fans have to sell dope and hock their possessions to afford them), and advertises light beer. Worst of all, once the song's narrator gets to the concert he doesn't see anyone like himself. Gasp! Joe is the worst of all, a portrait of a music exec who sees his artists as nothing but disposable commodities. The lyrics have no subtlety or wit and neither does the music.

Other songs touch on the themes in a kinder, gentler way. Have Love Will Travel is a sweet love song that mentions "the lonely dj's" and "the boys that play rock and roll" but its tone is more hopeful than angry. Can't Stop The Sun strikes a similarly positive note, forming an assured statement of purpose and resolve. Addressing "the man" Petty sings: "You may think that you control things / but there'll be more just like me / who won't give in / who'll rise again." And Dreamville finds Petty prettily nostalgic for his youth, "rock and roll across the dial" and his mother. It's probably no coincidence that these three songs are the best on the album. It's because they don't come from a hateful place.

The other half on the album has absolutely nothing to do with the music industry. Lost Children and When A Kid Goes Bad both touch on societal ills, runaways and gun violence respectively. Blue Sunday, Like A Diamond, and You and Me are all love songs of a sort, the last one being especially sweet and outstanding. Finally, The Man Who Loved Women is a '20s style throwaway.

None of these songs are terrible. In fact, everything besides Joe is sturdy and workmanlike at worst. So is it fair that The Last DJ gets worst album disctinction based on 3 misguided songs? Maybe not. Is the music industry corrupt? Sure. We don't really need that pointed out to us in a heavy-handed way. If Petty really was serious about changing the system, he would have become independant by now, and started performing in clubs for $10 cover. I don't see that happening. Nevertheless, I still have a ton of respect for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, but I'd be lying if I said listening to and thinking about The Last DJ doesn't diminish that respect somewhat.

What the album does do for me is make me resolute that I will never become an angry old man who raves about the good old days. It's just not attractive.

Author's Note: This is album review # 202.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

201. The Hopefuls: Now Playing at the One-Seat Theatre (2008)

Now Playing At The One-Seat Theatre, the long-awaited second album from Twin Cities power pop super-group The Hopefuls, has a couple of repeating motifs. One is the closing instrumental track that echoes the title track. The other is a rousing coda that ends the album's opening and penultimate songs. In both, songwriters Darren Jackson and John Hermanson shout: "It was a long way back / And we almost made it."

At first it seems like a meaningless phrase, but with some context, it comes into focus. See, after the 2004 release of The Fuses Refuse To Burn, The Hopefuls (The Olympic Hopefuls before the litigious I.O.C. got involved) had plenty of reasons to fulfill their own moniker. They had a cracking live show, songs catchier than chicken pox, and national exposure (on The O.C.). But then things got rough.

Erik Appelwick, who wrote and sang half of the songs on the band's debut, left the band in 2006 to be in a band that has exceeded its local fame, Tapes 'n Tapes. This threw The Hopefuls' future into question. Guitarist and leader Jackson kept the group alive as a performing entity, with keyboardist Hermanson, a talented singer and songwriter in his own right, taking a bigger role. However, the longer the band went without releasing a promised second album, the harder it was to stay, well, hopeful that they'd continue on.

Thankfully the fuse never completely went out. After a wait the same as the interval between Olympics we finally have Now Playing at the One-Seat Theatre. Any worries that the loss of Appelwick and the long layoff would kill the magic are immediately assuaged once the keytar kicks off the album's infectious opening song, The Edge of Medicine. It's one of four songs on Now Playing... that the band have been performing live for at least the last three years (the others are Idaho, Red Stain, and Hold Your Own), and I'm thrilled to have it on disc. On first blush the lyrics seem to concern our Prozac nation, but further evidence points to steroids as its true subject. Witness the lines: "We are fast / We are strong / But we won't be here for long / So let's set a record they could never break."

Idaho is a break-up song, a Jackson specialty. It's also as musically joyous as anything you'll hear in the new year. The song's narrator is clearly upset that his beloved is leaving for Idaho, but he's not going to chase her, for a variety of reasons: 1) he doesn't know how to get there, 2) gas is too expensive, 3) he can't breathe the thin air of the Rocky Mountains, and 4) he knows she doesn't even like him.

The pleading Miss You concerns a narrator with similar problems: "We'll hide it inside a box so I can pretend that it's not real / And for awhile believe you feel the same way you used to feel / And any minute you'll walk in the door and throw your arms around my neck / Or maybe it will be ice cold hands that want to strangle me to death." Musically the song sounds marries power pop to Motown. The "baby come home" backing vocals are an inspired touch, as is Jackson's Prince-ly falsetto on the song's final minute.

Red Stain concerns, well, a stain on a jacket. At first the narrator entertains notions that it might be wine or pen ink, but eventually reveals that it is in fact the spot where his girl ripped his heart out by telling him they were through. A cutting guitar lick accentuates this gruesomely thrilling tale.

But the mack daddy of this album's break-up songs is the sweepingly dramatic One-Seat Theatre. Here, Jackson skillfully employs a song-length metaphor wherein the song's hero imagines life as a movie and realizes his romance with the leading lady wasn't worthy of screen-time. "The scene distracted from the action / Your version has all the edits," he tells his former love, "But I'm stuck with the director's cut." As the song erupts into a final keyboard-driven outro, Jackson provides the album's title: "Now playing at the one-seat theatre / A film called Love Without a Future."

Lest you get the wrong idea, the album isn't all gloom. In fact Virgin Wood is the band's most unabashed love song since Drain the Sea. Goaded on by the excellent drums of Eric Fawcett, Jackson tells the tale of a couple who sneak into the forest to consummate their love. It sounds a little uncomfortable, but Jackson perfectly captures the passion of young love. As the song winds down things heat up: "So let it burn / out of control / Just like a fire fueled with gas / And dance around / Until we fall into a heap of human ash."

Jackson's contributions are rounded out by What She Wants, a brief stomper about a demanding woman, and the aforementioned instrumental closer Love Without A Future (The Director's Cut). The latter feels like the album's only unnecessary moment.

John Hermanson contributes too. Anyone familiar with Storyhill or Alvastar knows he can write a pop song, but he goes ahead and proves it anyway with Stacey, Only Dreaming, and Hold Your Own. Stacey is the best of the three, a buzzy, ambiguous ode to a faithful girl from a faithless guy, I think. Only Dreaming also fails to provide much clarity, but the multiple hooks (guitar, keys, glockenspiel, chorus) help one to happily ignore that fact. Hold Your Own is a catchy marching singalong that, as I mentioned before, morphs into an echo of The Edge of Medicine's closing moments ("It was a long way back / And we almost made it").

It's natural to wonder what this second album might have sounded like if Erik Appelwick had been involved beyond his cowriting credit on Hold Your Own and his guitar part on The Edge of Medicine. His Tapes 'n Tapes gig may pay the bills but it doesn't sufficiently display his talent (see the first Hopefuls album or any of his three Vicious Vicious discs for details). Plus, before he quit The Hopefuls, the band performed an unrecorded song about Lynda Carter (a.k.a. Wonder Woman). I still hold out hope that it'll one day see wax, plastic, or compressed data file.

But honestly, I can't imagine the album being much better than it already is, and that's a testament especially to Darren Jackson. The Hopefuls definitely took the long way back, but I think they sell themselves a bit short. They didn't almost make it. They went all the way.

Grade: A
Fave Song: One-Seat Theatre / Virgin Wood (tie)