Tuesday, June 30, 2009

226. The Monkees: The Monkees Present (1969)

The Monkees Present was was the band's final '60s attempt to wring any commercial viability out of itself. Unlike Instant Replay, all but two of the songs were brand new, and the album was accompanied by a strong advertising push (including a cross promotion with Kool-Aid!) and a tour with a seven piece R & B backing group.

As interesting as that all sounds, The Monkees Present failed to make much of an impression. Monkeemania had obviously had its day, and Michael Nesmith chose to leave the band soon after.

The Classics:

Mike's Listen to the Band, though not a huge hit at the time, has become a sort of theme for the group. Though Nesmith claims the lyrics weren't a plea to be judged on musical merit, people nonetheless chose to view them that way. Rhino even chose the song's title as the name of their 1991 Monkees box set.

The Pleasant Surprises:
Good Clean Fun is, in my opinion, the most crackerjack country rock song the Monkees ever did. Though the title has nothing to do with the song, the lyrics, about a man returning home to his patient sweetheart, are actually quite straightforward (something you can never take for granted with Nesmith). Oklahoma Backroom Dancer, another Mike tune, boasts a honky tonk piano and a groovy rhythm.

Mommy and Daddy
finds Mickey attempting to redeem himself for his awful showing on Instant Replay, and succeeding. Like Randy Scouse Git, the lyrics are socially-conscious. They take on the treatment of American Indians, drug use, war, and the misguided tendency of white middle class parents to shelter their kids from harsh truths.

Comme Ci Comme Ca:
Mickey also offers Little Girl, a fast-paced, jazzy tune with some nice harmonies, and the harmonica-centric Bye Bye Baby Bye Bye. Neither is bad, but both feel slight and underformed.
Pillow Time, a minimal jazzy fairytale lullaby cowritten by Mickey's mom, is intriguing in concept, but slightly boring in execution.

After an atypically strong showing on Instant Replay, Davy returns to blah territory with the soppy If I Knew. French Song is not much better; the loungey instrumentation is its most appealing aspect. Looking For the Good Times, a half-baked leftover Boyce and Hart tune from 1966 is highlighted only by Mickey and Davy sharing vocals, something that didn't happen nearly enough.

Mike's only semi-clunker on the record is Never Tell a Woman Yes, a piano-driven tale of a man who passes on a woman's invitation to travel with her, regrets it when he finds out she's rich, and then ultimately gets rewarded when she comes to find him after having been robbed by another man. Thus we get the title of the song, which serves as an odd, misguided moral to the story.

WTF?:
Ladies Aid Soceity, another Boyce and Hart composition from '66, is easily the worst song on the album. As far as I can tell it's an attempt to capture the same spirit of pastoral Britain that The Kinks did so well. It just doesn't work, especially the annoying falsetto chorus.

The Bonus Tracks:
The selection here is fairly (and thankfully limited). There are two original tracks, two alternate versions, and an advertisement. Calico Girlfriend Samba is a fun, spirited track that Mike reused on his solo debut, Magnetic South. The Good Earth is a hippy dippy, anonymous poem that Davy recites rather dramatically and earnestly. It's actually not too bad until the final line: "Why can't we be good, on the good Earth?"

Listen to the Band is presented in an earlier version, but marking the differences is for audiophiles only. A harsher, more controversial version of Mommy and Daddy is also included, with the added lines "ask your mommy and daddy who really killed JFK" (remember it was only 6 years later) and "if it was my blood, mommy, would you care a little more?". Of course, I like this non-bowdlerized version even better than the final.

Finally, there's a radio ad for the album. It features a "typical teen" talking "straight" about how The Monkees Present speaks for just them, and how those square adults just won't get it. Though it's an actor delivering the lines, the air of desperation is palpable.

The Monkees Present is the last time for a long time that the band represented even a shred of its former self. It's a middle-0f-the-road swan song, especially considering that the worst was yet to come.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: Good Clean Fun

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Respect

Thursday, June 25, 2009

225. The Seldon Plan: Lost and Found and Lost (2009)

One of my favorite all-time TV shows is Felicity, which aired on the WB from 1999 to 2002. I think the show captivated me because it represented my college experience. Not that my college life was anything like Felicity's. I didn't send taped diary entries to a friend back home. I didn't spend four years vacillating between two guys (though I would have gone with Noel over Ben). I wasn't a barista at Dean and Deluca, nor did I learn tough lessons about rape, divorce, testicular cancer, and alcoholism. I did, however, cut my hair very short.

Specifics aside, what rang true about the show for me was the earnest nature of the title character and her friends. That was me in college. I was a Romantic. I turned every thought over and over. Every experience seemed deeply important. Weighty philosophical questions and conclusions abounded. I had graduated college by the time the show premiered (actually just that spring), so it was like instant nostalgia for me.

What does all this have to do with The Seldon Plan, a Baltimore band who've recently released their third album? Well, a couple of things.

For one, their lyrics capture that same shoe-gazing tone that Felicity did. While the band members aren't in college, they obviously have a fondness for the earnestness of youth. Consider lines like "French cinema taught me how to love," (from French Cinema), or "we're the hopeful ones who want the springtime back" (from the forlorn Lonely Bridgewater), or "we are young / crossing our legs / looking stern" (from standout Philadelphia and a Moment). Run, Go! recalls a party where people are "having drinks and telling stories." Majestic Mountain explicitly mentions college towns and summers. Lullabyes for Old Hearts captures the impatience of youth. "I can't wait, now!" it exclaims.

The album's opening and closing songs help reinforce the fondness for days past. I'm pretty sure Caldecott is not about the 19th century English illustrator who inspired the annual picture book award (I wish I had a lyric sheet), but when taken in conjuction with Ezra Jack Keats it seems to form a tidy bookend. Keats was a children's author and illustrator who won the Caldecott in 1963 for his book The Snowy Day. The latter, by the way, is the album's best and most audacious song, with prominent "la-la-la-la" background vocals, driving rhythms, and an extended trumpet part.

That leads us to the second reason Lost and Found and Lost makes me think about Felicity. Most of the songs on the album sound like they could have provided the soundtrack for the show, like they could have accompanied the upteenth whispered conversation between Felicity and Ben as they tried to sort out their differences, or a montage of Noel ruefully walking the city streets, consumed by his latest heartbreak.

The band sounds a little bit emo (in the hushed lead vocals, chiming guitars, and aforementioned shoegazing nature of the lyrics) and a little bit indie pop (in the abundance of choral singing, like a slightly less exuberant and esoteric version of the New Pornographers). Vocalist / songwriter Dawn Dineen is mostly responsible for the latter, her harmonies with singer Michael Nestor being a highlight on several tracks, most notably the title track and There Are Undertones Here.

Maybe you've never heard of Felicity, maybe you were one of those who inexplicably stopped watching when she cut her hair, or maybe you actively hated the show. No matter. If you are (or fondly remember being) a person who lived in your own head, with daydreams of romance and fate and deeper meanings, Lost and Found and Lost is an album that will speak to you.

Grade: B
Fave Song: Ezra Jack Keats

Friday, June 12, 2009

224. The Monkees: Instant Replay (1969)

And then there were three. After Head, Peter Tork left the Monkees, and the other three soldiered on. Instant Replay, an album comprised of older songs from the vault alongside newly recorded material, was the debut of the Monkees as a trio.

Not that it made much difference. Peter, unfortunately, was rarely a huge part of the Monkees sound. That's why he left in the first place. So what you might expect to be one of the band's lesser efforts is actually one of their better ones.

The Classics:

There are no songs on this album that a casual music listener would recognize.

The Pleasant Surprises:
Michael Nesmith had, thankfully, seemed to grow out of his psychedelic phase, and was back to writing pleasant folk country pop tunes. Don't Wait For Me and While I Cry are both twangy laments, and both are newer songs. I Won't Be the Same Without Her is the standout, but is also leftover from a 1966 session. Mike sings, but Gerry Goffin and Carole King wrote it. It's a mannered Byrdsian track, with Baroque harmonies, and a steady rhythm.

After laying so many rotten eggs on The Birds, the Bees, and the Monkees, Davy acquits himself somewhat, on three songs recorded specifically for the album. Me Without You is spirited and fun. The Girl I Left Behind Me You is like a lost Carpenters song. You and I is the most surprising track, a blues rock workout that dares to get slightly heavy on its second half. Not only is it surprising that Davy sang this sort of song, but he also co-wrote it!

The real story on Instant Replay is the decline of Mickey Dolenz, who had been such a beacon of quality work on the early Monkees albums. I'll get to his other contributions momentarily, but it's telling that his one good song on the album is an old one. Tear Drop City could have been a hit if it had been released a year or two earlier. The sturdy writing team of Boyce and Hart gave this track that old Monkees magic, even providing the high background harmonies. It's like Last Train To Clarksville's groovier cousin.

Comme Ci Comme Ca:
Through the Looking Glass is the first and most minor of Mickey's Instant Replay sins. Another leftover track, this one lacks the strength of Tear Drop City. Some nice tack piano and some off-kilter harmonies keep things interesting intially, but the song quickly becomes annoying. Davy's performance of Goffin and King's A Man Without a Dream is not awful, but neither is it great. The horn-driven arrangement saves it from devolving into a complete snoozer.

WTF?:
Don't Listen to Linda, on the other hand, is the one Davy stinker on the album. It's a boring cautionary tale about an unctuous woman.

Mickey's worst two offences were also new self-written songs. He had previously shown himself to be a very capable composer, notably on Headquarters' Randy Scouse Git. But Just a Game and Shorty Blackwell show none of that talent. The former is cloying, with a vocal performance that demonstrates the same cavalier attitude that the lyrics condemn. The former features an irritating high-voiced chorus and a complete lack of structure. It's long (nearly 6 minutes) and drugged out. Looking back, Mickey described it as "self-indulgent," which might be too nice a description.

The Bonus Tracks:
Unlike many of the Rhino reissues, Instant Replay features some interesting and unique bonus tracks. In fact, three of them should have made the actual album. Davy tackles Paul Williams' Someday Man and does a very nice job. Mike's St. Matthew is a strangely charming tune. And Mickey's Rosemarie is at least 10 times better than anything that he actually placed on the album. A finished version of the song showed up on the Missing Links compliation.

Mike's Carlisle Wheeling and Davy's Smile are less-than essential, as are the two alternate versions of Me Without You and Through the Looking Glass, which even the liner notes admit only contain "subtle aural differences" from their album-version counterparts.

Despite Mickey's dippy contributions, Instant Replay is an enjoyably forgettable record from a band who was watching their relevance fade right before their eyes.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: I Won't Be the Same Without Her

Monday, June 08, 2009

223. Green Day: 21st Century Breakdown (2009)

On the inside liner notes of Green Day's new album, 21st Century Breakdown, there's a graffiti portrait of the band accompanied by the words "The Class of '13". Believe it or not, 2013 is when Green Day will be eligible for induction into the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame. Pointing that out might seem a bit presumptuous on their part, but as far as I'm concerned, they have nothing left to prove.

Consider that following their initial success (Dookie in 1994), they cemented their place in the public consciousness with the decidedly not-punk ballad Good Riddance (Time of Your Life). That song became the theme for a thousand proms, memorial tributes, and sitcom finales. Sure there was initial backlash, but once American Idiot showed up in 2004, all was forgiven. The album spawned three huge hits, and became the band's second best selling record. Not only that, critics and hipsters alike embraced the album. And, thanks to the political nature of the lyrics and the rock opera concept of the record, the group managed to simultaneously be taken seriously as artists and activists.

As such, no one would have really blamed them for putting out a plain old mediocre follow-up album. Certainly one wouldn't expect them to try to replicate or perfect the American Idiot formula. But that's exactly what they've done, producing another socially-minded rock opera, one that's even better than its predecessor.

Don't get me wrong, American Idiot was a good album. It took the rage generated by the Bush administration and made it danceable. In every way it represented a step forward for the band, and a few of its individual songs will live on as radio staples for as long as radio exists. But as a "rock opera" it was lacking. The story, about Jesus of Suburbia, Whatsername, and St. Jimmy, was indecipherable.

Believe it or not, 21st Century Breakdown is a longer record than American Idiot, but feels shorter and more streamlined. There are no 9 minute song suites or attempts at a linear story. Instead, the band settles for interwoven lyrical and musical themes, and two recurring characters called Christian and Gloria. The album is expertly sequenced, broken into three "acts", each one better than the last.

The album opens with Song of the Century, a scratchy a capella theme that lays out the album's big mission statement, namely saying eff-you to the illusions created by politics, religion and media. "Sing us a song of the century / Louder than bombs and eternity / The era of static and contraband / Leading us into the promised land."

Act I, Heroes and Cons, follows. It focuses mostly on the politics side side of the unholy trinity, though it also spends a fair amount of time contemplating Armageddon. The title song is one of the strongest on the album, with shifts in tempo and mood, and lyrics that read like a screed. Elsewhere, the characters are introduced, each in their own respective songs (Viva La Gloria and Christian's Inferno). Know Your Enemy, the first single, also shows up here. It's a fine song, but not much more than by-the-numbers Green Day. Before the Lobotomy sketches out a nightmareish dystopic future in the form of a power ballad. The lovely piano-driven Last Night on Earth has some strong melodic shifts and Beatley slide guitar; despite its title, it may be the most unabashed love song the band have ever written.

The appropriately-titled second act, Charlatans and Saints, focuses on organized religion. East Jesus Nowhere rides a rockabilly strut to a not-so-far-fetched tale of a religious military state. First there's the missionary statement ("join the choir, we will be singing / in the church of wishful thinking"), then the admonishment of dissenters ("don't test me / second guess me / protest me / you will disappear"). Those themes carry over directly into Peacemaker, a should-be future single. The song borrows a little bit from the Gogol Bordello playbook, with the minor-key fiddle and heavy high-hat, but that's not a bad thing.

Gloria gets her second theme, the bass-driven Last of the American Girls and we find out "she puts her make-up on like graffiti" to accompany "you blast your name in graffiti on the walls." A third theme shows up one song later (after the infectious Murder City) in the form of Viva La Gloria? (Little Girl). The song is a parade of religious imagery, with mentions of preaching to the choir, the salvation army, and an unholy sister of grace. Act II ends with Restless Heart Syndrome, an attempt to evoke Use Your Illusion-era Guns 'N Roses if there ever was one. The lyrics include "you are your own worst enemy / know your enemy" just to keep that sense of continuity going.

The final act, Horseshoes and Handgrenades, begins with a title song (the other two titles are lyrics in songs contained therein), and it's a doozy. Half playground taunt, half old man wisdom, the song is fast, harmonic, and manages to be prototypical Green Day without retreading already-covered ground. The song marks a more strident tone for the final third of the record. The Static Age maintains the energy, addressing the final piece of the puzzle (media) and how it promotes the other two: "Advertising love and religion / murder on the airwaves." There might be a little bit of curmudgeon creeping into that punk attitude, but it's hard to argue when the key changes and that surfy bit kicks in.

The next song marks the delivery of the promise of American Idiot's Boulevard of Broken Dreams. That song aimed to put Green Day in the same category as U2, and 21 Guns damn near does it. Epic feeling? Check. Weighty harmonies? Check. Reverby guitar? Check. Amazing vocal performance? Check. An hour after I wrote my initial notes for this review and earmarked this one to have huge hit potential, I heard it on the radio. Lyrically, the song is simultaneously an expression of extreme weariness and a call for peace.

If the album was a concert, 21 Guns would be the closer. The encore, American Eulogy, begins with a reprise of Song of the Century, which flows directly into Mass Hysteria. The boys' time moonlighting as '60s mod rockers Foxboro Hot Tubs shines through here, as one could easily do the mashed potato to this one. That segues into the Jam-ish Modern World. This section is sung by bassist Mike Dirnt, who acquits himself well. It's a thrill after a thrill after a thrill a thrill, and the band can do nothing but come down from there.

Luckily the last song is the perfect closer. See the Light strikes a hopeful note to end the record. There are a no answers to the ills described in the rest of the record, but a resolution to keep searching: "I just want to see the light," Billie Joe sings, "I need to know what's worth the fight." Fittingly, the song ends with the same piano notes of 21st Century Breakdown, bringing it all back home.

21st Century Breakdown may not achieve the same acclaim or ubiquity as its predecessor, but it won't be because it doesn't deserve it. In making the album, Green Day had nothing left to prove, except, apparently, to themselves. 2013 awaits.

Grade: A
Fave Songs: the entire Horseshoes and Handgrenades act

2009a

Every year I make two mixes of songs that move me, one for each half of the year. I've just finished the first one for 2009. The artwork should be somewhat familiar.

Here is the tracklist:

1. P.O.S. – Low Light Low Life
2. Phoenix – Lasso
3. Sean Fournier – Put the World on Stop
4. White Rabbits – Rudie Fails
5. Death Cab for Cutie – Little Bribes
6. The Seldon Plan – Run, Go
7. The Hopefuls – Virgin Wood
8. Green Day – Horseshoes and Handgrenades
9. Mandy Moore – I Could Break Your Heart Any Day of the Week
10. Harlem Shakes – Strictly Game
11. Tinted Windows – Cha Cha
12. The Honeydogs – Stash
13. U2 – Stand Up Comedy
14. Morrissey – All You Need Is Me