After the triumph that was Headquarters, there was bound to be a letdown. The popular version of the story tells us that Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones Ltd represented the record company retaking control, but that's not necessarily the case. While not nearly as DYI as its predecessor, this album is still more of a cohesive Monkees product than anything that would come after.
That said, it's a hodgepodge of an album, without any unified sound or direction. There are touches of lounge music, straight-ahead '60s pop, country rock, and burgeoning psychedelica.
Pisces... features no less than three stone cold Monkees classics. First is Words, another gem from Boyce & Hart (the songwriters who steered the band's first and second albums). Mickey Dolenz takes lead vocals, with Peter Tork backing him up with some strong talk-singing. The lyrics concern a poor fellow who has been taken in by a fork-tongued woman. Next up is What Am I Doin' Hanging 'Round?, which harkens back to the country rock of Headquarters with Mike Nesmith's twangy vocal and a smoking electric banjo throughout. Fact: This song was co-written by Michael Martin Murphy, who later wrote the awful hit song Wildfire. The final classic on the album is the bouyant Pleasant Valley Sunday. Written by Goffin & King and featuring an unforgettable guitar riff, the song's lyrics concern the suburban ideal of "rows of houses that are all the same, and no one seems to care." One might be tempted to read some satire or condemnation into the lyrics, but the soaring melody and performance simply won't allow it.
These are the songs that weren't hits, but are nonetheless sparkling examples of the Monkees experience. The Door Into Summer and Love Is Only Sleeping feature a lead vocal by Mike, unique harmonies (especially on the former) and a slightly psychedelic edge. Cuddly Toy, written by Harry Nilsson, is melodically undeniable (especially on the chorus) but features goofy lyrics ("You're not the only cherry delight / Who was left in the night / And gave up without a fight"). Luckily those are counteracted by a harpsichord reminiscent of mid-period Beatles and awesome shared vocals from Davy Jones and Mickey. Finally, there's the enigmatic Daily Nightly, which Mike wrote and Mickey sings. The song is recognized as the first pop song to feature a Moog synthesizer. Mickey plays it amelodically on the record, contributing crazy random (but not dissonant) sounds.
Comme Ci, Comme Ca
These songs I could take or leave. Opening tune Salesman, which Mike sings, is sort of an analogue to the Beatles' Taxman (a song that opened their 1966 album Revolver) but isn't half as clever. Hard To Believe is an ornamental and lavish Davy Jones vehicle (he even co-wrote it) that gives him a chance to be earnest and dramatic. Mike's Don't Call On Me is in the same vein musically, but serves as a parody of the lounge music that was considered "square" at the time. It's slightly boring, but does show off the versatility of the band.
This category is for songs that are either especially strange or bad or both. The poppy, Beach Boyish She Hangs Out features Davy calling out a friend's sister, informing said friend that she's not as innocent as he thinks. There are some groovy horns and some fun "do lay run lay run" back-up vocals, but the lyrics kind of ruin it for me. Peter Percival Patterson Pet Pig Porky is a spoken novelty tongue twister from Peter Tork. It's fun and leads perfectly into Pleasant Valley Sunday, but it's a shame that Peter's main contributions to the record couldn't have been more musical. Finally, there's Star Collector, an odd Goffin & King composition about a groupie. Davy shouts his lyrics, and the Moog is used here too, and is even more of an intergral part of the sound tapstry than it was on Daily Nightly. There are two very strange solos in the middle and at the end of the song (which runs 4 1/2 minutes; that was a lifetime back then).
The Bonus Tracks
There obviously wasn't much to add of value, but that didn't stop Rhino from including 7 bonus tracks. The Mickey showcase Goin' Down is the only one of any value. Originally the b-side of Daydream Believer (which was intended for Pisces..., but ended up on the next album), Goin' Down is a jazzy jam session with Mickey scat-singing whatever comes into his head. The results are charming (if overlong).
The rest of the bonus tracks are alternate versions of Salesman, The Door Into Summer, Love Is Only Sleeping, Daily Nightly and Star Collector, which are only of interest to fans who enjoy the poring over the minor differences in vocal takes or trying to discern whether the mix is mono or stereo.
When taken in whole, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones Ltd is an album with a lot of small pleasures and very few eye-rollers. It's solidly in the second tier of Monkees albums; not their best, but far from their worst.
Fave Song: Pleasant Valley Sunday / What Am I Doin' Hanging 'Round? (tie)