Monday, August 03, 2009

Rock Bottom: The Monkees

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 alw
ays 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.

* * *

Unlike some of the other rock bottoms, where several of an artist's albums vied for the lowest rank, there's clear fan and critic consensus on the Monkees. Their worst is the 1987 reunion album Pool It!.

Rob Theakston of the All Music Guide gave the album 1 and a half star, where every other Monkees album got at least one full star more than that. He says the record, considering how it squelched their comeback, "was a bit like watching a prized race horse's legs give midway through a race." He also says, it's "unquestionably their worst output of all time."

Monkees fans who reviewed the album on Amazon.com were somewhat kinder. Fuzzy Lizard calls Pool It! "silly." One anonymous reviewer calls it "banal" and "pointless" (which begs the question, when we listen to pop music are we really looking for it to have a point?). Another nameless fan says it's "forgettable in a big way" (isn't that an oxymoron?). Finally, a cranky reviewer called Bucket warns, "prepare to hear a group you love tarnish their canon."

As usual, Amazon brings out the album's defenders and apologists as well. Elaine Downey says, "The music is fresh and is of a excellent timbre to say the least." She adds her belief that a person has to be "at least 45 years old" to "grasp" and "understand" the Monkees' music. "I am mid 50's, she says, "and have NEVER heard a badly sung or done Monkees song. I honestly do not believe they are capable of that, they are above that and would never settle for anything less." Mark Ebert (Roger's less-famous, music-reviewing brother?) offers the insightful observation that "what makes [Pool It!] a great reunion album is that it is loaded with reunion songs." A man named Monkees (Johnny) summarizes: "So if you are looking to buy this one, you won't go wrong. Enjoy it. I own five of this copy."

Pool It! came hot on the heels of the successful 1986 Then & Now... hits collection and its three new songs. The three Monkees (Peter Tork, Davy Jones, and Mickey Dolenz; Mike Nesmith chose not to participate) had toured extensively and wanted to sustain the renewed interest in the band. Rhino, the record company who had reissued the band's early albums, offered to record and release the album. It was a big investment for a small company that normally specialized in nostalgia releases.

Recording was quick, just like in the band's early days. Also like the early days (Headquarters aside), the guys chose not to write their own songs, play their own instruments, or participate in each other's songs. Some Amazon.com reviewers saw this as the heart of Pool It's problem, assuming that it indicated a lack of care or supervision. I don't think that was the case. In fact, I'd be inclined to argue the opposite: That the album had a bit too much say from the three Monkees.

The liner notes to Rhino's 1995 CD reissue of the album, written by Harold Bronson, executive producer, offer some insight into this. Bronson details how the album came to be, including the process by which a producer was chosen (Davy wanted Quincy Jones) and how the songs were picked. Though he never states it explicitly, Bronson suggests that the boys made bad decisions out of unrealistic expectations (Mickey "envisioned a yearly tour, film, and record for the Monkees") and meddling wives ("Mickey ignored his impeccable taste in songs and deferred to his then-wife's preferences.") Bronson adds that the album was more "polished" than Rhino expected, but that "the Monkees made the album they wanted to make and were happy with Pool It!" I can't help but feel that those words were not intended positively, and that Bronson is attempting to absolve himself from blame. That's never really something you want in your liner notes.

Something else to consider when assessing the album is the time period in which it was created and released. Some Amazon reviewers sing that favorite old tune about the album being "dated," but Burritoman offers some perspective. He points out that, "'80's pop hasn't weathered as well as the '60's pop has." This is especially true of the specific age group that didn't grow up with synths and drum machines. Anyway, as I always say, production should only be called dated if it ruins an otherwise well-written song. It didn't matter that That Was Then, This Is Now or Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere were full of synths, because those were good songs. But what about the line-up on Pool It!?

The Classics:
Probably none, but let's be generous and add the first single, minor hit, and album opener Heart and Soul into this category. The song features a great vocal from Mickey (what else is new?), and a multiple hooks. In the middle, there's a nice little breakdown with just drums and vocals. The liner notes even point out that Nickelodeon viewers voted Heart and Soul their favorite video of the year in 1987.

The Pleasant Surprises:
Secret Heart, a Mickey showcase, features skipping guitar, a driving rhythm, and a sax solo. It's a fun pop song, and that's no surprise since its co-writer Martin Page was responsible for co-writing the hits We Built This City by Starship, These Dreams by Heart, and Go West's King of Wishful Thinking. He also had a had a hand in All For Love on the Say Anything... soundtrack!

Pool It! features Peter Tork's first leading role as a Monkee in 19 years and he makes the most of it. He wrote and sang Gettin' In, a surprisingly unconventional ditty that reminds me of Oingo Boingo, with its strong rhythm, basso profundo vocals (with just a touch of falsetto thrown in for good measure), and the spooky Halloween keys. There's also Since You Went Away a break-up tune. The funny lyrics ("the plants have grown, the dog came home, the bills are all getting paid, things are much better since you went away") give the song a bit of a novelty feel, but the boppy arrangement sells it.

Don't Bring Me Down, believe it or not, was co-written by Tommy James of Tommy James and the Shondells (Crimson and Clover). Micky takes the lead on this pop tune with a very singable chorus and an admirable instrumental performance.

Comme Ci Comme Ca:
(I'd Go the) Whole Wide World is a cover of a 1978 tune by New Wave singer/songwriter Wreckless Eric, a contemporary of Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello. The original song had a sort of '60s garage feel, so it wasn't a bad choice for the Monkees. However, the beefed-up production and Mickey's failed attempt at a "rough" vocal on the chorus make it worse than the original.

Davy's first Monkees work of the '80s is exactly what you'd expect. Long Way Home (a song by Hart and Eastman, who also wrote Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere) is a sappy ballad. The chorus isn't bad, but Davy's vocal is forced in places, and the awful female backing on the outro is unnecessary.

Every Step of the Way is for those who've always wondered what it would sound like if Davy Jones was the lead singer of Poison. This is actually a cover of a 1983 Ian Hunter song. It's not a bad song, and Davy gives it his best (even channeling his namesake David (Bowie) Jones a bit) but I can't help but feel that Mickey would have knocked this one out of the park.

Midnight, mentioned by many Amazon.com reviewers as a favorite, is not a bad song, but Mickey's vocal doesn't seem to fit exactly. The song seems to call for a subtler touch. Strange to say, but Peter might have handled it better.

WTF?
(I'll) Love You Forever, which boasts perhaps the most superfluous use of parentheses in a song title ever, is more Davy Jones crappiness, with strings, acoustic guitars, sighing keys, and terrible lyrics. I hate to rag too much on Davy, because he has shown himself very capable of delivering good songs and performances. This just isn't one of them.

She's Movin' In With Rico is Davy does calypso. That's all I need to say.

Album closer is Counting on You, and lest you think the title of the song isn't literal, Davy spends much of the time actually counting!

* * *

The critics and fans may agree that Pool It! is the Monkees' worst album, but I'm not quite convinced. In fact, take away Davy Jones' contributions, and it may well count among my favorite works by the band. I also must admit a slight and strange bias. I didn't hear the album until it was released on CD, but I remember clearly being 10 years old seeing Pool It! on the racks at Appletree Records in downtown Normal, Illinois. I thought the album title and cover were soooo clever and was very excited about the idea of there being new Monkees music! I didn't have the money to purchase the album that day, but I sure wanted to.

Since I disagree with the critics and fans, this is the point where I offer a considered alternative. Since I have been intimate with every Monkees album over the last 7 months, I'm uniquely qualified to do just that. To make it slightly less subjective, I assigned point values to each of my four song categories (3 points for classics, 2 for surprises, 1 for comme ci comme ca, and -2 for WTF), and went back through each review and did the math. Though Pool It! definitely resides in the lower tiers of the Monkees' output, tying with Changes for the second-to-last-place, it's not the rock bottom. That honor, unfortunately, goes to the group's final effort, Justus.

It's a tough break, because if one compares Justus and Pool It!, the former is definitely the more admirable effort. It featured the Monkees doing everything themselves and putting their all into self-created music. It's much less crass and commercial than Pool It!, but it's also less fun. And isn't fun what the Monkees were about, ultimately?

Grade: C+
Fave Song: Gettin' In

Author's Note: This is album review #232

5 comments:

Alex said...

Seriously, though, wasn't the title of the album a clue to how little real thought and consideration went into it?

Christena said...

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Christena said...
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Dave said...

Ah, there it is. I essentially agree with this review. I definitely enjoyed it more when I was a kid than I do now, but it's still fun.

As a side note, not only did I see this album on the racks in Normal, Illinois, I actually purchased it there -- at Disk Jockey in the College Hills Mall. I grew up in Bloomington.

Anonymous said...

not the best album, ill admit. but i don't think it is to be disgraced as rock Bottom. There are many albums far worse than this. i actually liked midnight.