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...

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Sometimes I Miss You So Much

2016 has made the world a less interesting place musically. The year just reaching its halfway point and we've lost not only Bowie and Prince, but also Glenn Frey, George Martin, Phife Dawg, Merle Haggard, Maurice White, Paul Kantner, Keith Emerson and Bernie Worrell.

Less newsworthy but no less significant than those others was the recent passing of Attrell Cordes, a.k.a. Prince Be, of P.M. Dawn. Strange as it is, tributes from fans and critics on social media have a healing power. Being able to mourn and celebrate collectively with strangers is comforting, and this was especially so for me in the cases of Bowie and Prince. But it didn't happen with Prince Be's death, and that's sadly indicative of P.M. Dawn's unfortunate career arc. Even the official biography on their website ends by telling us that "the group seemed to vanish into obscurity." So what happened?

P.M. Dawn had instant commercial success in 1991 with their first album (featuring "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss"), successfully shifted their sound toward R & B balladry on their smash second release (featuring "I'd Die Without You"), and then they made two more fantastic CDs (Jesus Wept in 1995 and Dearest Christian... in 1998). Unfortunately, neither of latter two lived up to the lofty sales expectations set by the first two, and the band went into survival mode.

This, oddly, is when I really got into them. I'd bought and loved Dearest Christian... when it came out, and then worked my way backward. In 2000, having lost their major label deal, the band sold a new album, Fucked Music, exclusively through its website. I remember the price seeming prohibitive at the time, but I went ahead and paid up anyway (I'm glad I did; physical copies of that album are extremely rare now). The next year I went to see them perform at the Quest in Minneapolis. It was the most sparsely-attended concert I've ever been to. I think I counted 17 people, not including the club staff. But the brothers Cordell, backed by a DAT machine, put on a fantastic show anyway. A benefit of the poor turnout? They played my shouted request ("Faith in You").

Though this seems like a low point, that was yet to come. In 2005, Prince Be fired his brother from the group for "conduct detrimental to the bliss." His cousin came in as replacement, but it hardly mattered because earlier that year, Be had suffered a massive stroke. A diabetic, his health continued to worsen over the next few years. He was paralyzed on his right side, had to have his leg amputated from the knee down, and was forced to give up performing and composing. He spent most of his final years under constant medical care.

Of course it's beyond sad that Prince Be had to spend the last years of his life in such terrible conditions, health-wise, and that he leaves behind a wife and children. But there's also a musical tragedy here. First, it's that we never got to hear the music Prince Be would have continued to make had his health not failed him. And secondly that P.M. Dawn are likely to be remembered (if at all) as a minor two-hit wonder, a curiosity in hip-hip history. In reality, they were one of the few true successors to Prince. They embraced and embodied many of the Purple One's ideals and interests, aesthetically, lyrically, and musically. Their sense of style was unique and boldly unconventional, and their melodically-rich songs did not limit themselves, incorporating rap, sampling, rock, folk, and R & B. And, like Prince, their lyrics were thoughtful, often searching and mystical.

Though it worked for Prince (to a point), it was likely this genre-defying bent that did P.M. Dawn in. Their initial success came in a more wide-open time in pop music, when it truly did seem like songs trumped format. But as radio became more regimented and their albums became more wide-ranging, the group's audience became undefinable, at least for program managers and record label executives. (It also likely didn't help that their last two albums had the words "Jesus" and "Christian" in their titles, giving them a false appearance of proselytizing.)

Thankfully, removed from commercial expectations, P.M. Dawn can be appreciated for what they were: Fantastic composers and performers who made albums and songs you can continually revisit. If you're feeling adventurous, seek out Jesus Wept (which I wrote about here), and then explore from there. I'll be doing the same.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

4 the Tears in Your Eyes

So, Prince died.

I've had a few days to calm down and process, so it's not hyperbole when I say that no music-related death that follows will be as impactful for me as this one.

Okay, just the act of writing that sent me on a morbid thought exercise, so I'll qualify the statement. No doubt there are several artists whose eventual deaths will be very tough for me. I won't be ghoulish and list them, especially given how this year has gone for musician deaths, but I can safely say none will match the circumstances of Prince's death. For one, with none of them have I shared the same home city for nearly two decades. None of them are so prodigiously prolific that their deaths will rob us of literally hundreds of songs and performances. And only a select few have as much music that has ingrained itself so thoroughly in my head as Prince has.

In fact, this very blog was once called Pop Life, after the 1985 Around the World in a Day track (I changed it when the Star Tribune music blog began to use the same name). The sister blog where I wrote about movies featuring musicians was called Baby, I'm a Star, after the song on Purple Rain.

There have been so many fantastic and insightful eulogies for the man over the past few days, and one of the small bright spots of his death has been the outpouring of love for his music coming from so many different places. It seems like everyone is appreciating him at the same level as I do, for however long that lasts. So it seems superfluous for me to to try to summarize his artistry on any macro level. Instead, I'm going to keep it personal.

My first awareness of Prince came in the summer after second grade. The daycare I attended gave us what seemed like an inordinate amount of time for unstructured play. We were often unleashed in a large open space that had been divided into several stations. There was an art table and a listening station with a record player. There was a TV corner (with a VCR and copies of movies such as Breakin' 2 and Conan the Destroyer). There was a section curtained off with mats for tumbling. That's where Stephanie Benedict and I would role play hero and heroine type games drawn from cartoons and films. Usually we were on the same wavelength with our choices, a He-Man and Tee-La here, a Heathcliff and Sonja there, but one day she insisted I be Prince and she be Apollonia. I was baffled. "You know, from Purple Rain!" she said. She told me that I drove a purple motorcycle and that she and I were passionately in love. Of course I went along with it.

I was a devoted Top 40 listener in my youth, so of course Prince's songs were part of my soundtrack, but I didn't buy any music for myself outside of ("Weird Al" tapes) until I was near the end of high school. And I didn't glom onto Prince until the end of college, when I finally bought The Hits / The B-Sides. I listened to that compilation on a steady loop through the summer of 1999 (naturally). And then I moved to Minneapolis. To Uptown, specifically, a place Prince had immortalized in song in 1980.

There wasn't a true cause and effect there, but it did seem like a sign that when the opportunity to move to the L'Etoile du Nord, I had "Pink Cashmere" running through my brain. And once I was living in the Purple One's home city, going to concerts at First Avenue - the venue he put on the map - and meeting people who'd actually been in his presence, my fandom blossomed. It wasn't long before I owned nearly everything he'd recorded. And I finally watched Purple Rain and was blown away by the performances, the atmosphere, the charisma, and the fact that Stephanie Benedict's parents let her watch that at age 8.

I never had an encounter with him, as much as I hoped to. The closest I got: My friend Marilee was working one evening when Prince and a bodyguard came into the Barnes and Noble near Lake Calhoun. I didn't just hear this after the fact. No, Marilee called me while he was there. I picked up the phone and heard her hushed, strained voice: "Paul! Prince. is. in. the. store. What should I say to him?" I think I suggested that she recommend Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, which featured a Prince-obsessed main character, but I can't remember if she actually did it. As it happened, Prince asked her if they had a copy of Yahoo Magazine (which, believe it or not, was a real thing), featuring him on the cover. They did; his bodyguard paid for the magazine and they left. I never met him, but I'm one degree away from someone who spoke with him. That will have to be enough.

The drunkest I've ever been was at a divey bar/restaurant called the Red Dragon, located on Lyndale Avenue in Uptown. It was the first and only time I've lost memory while drinking. But before that happened I went to the jukebox and dialed up a Prince set featuring "Raspberry Beret" and "Peach." Then I proceeded to ponder upon Prince's fascination with fruits. There's "Under the Cherry Moon," "Lemon Crush," "Tangerine"; "Christopher Tracy's Parade" mentions strawberries, and "Starfish and Coffee" mentions tangerines (again). According to the people I was with, I went on about this at great length.

The man's 2004 comeback, Musicology, was fantastic for a devoted fan. He was reengaged in being Prince, making appearances all over the place, and putting out new music I could actually get excited about (instead of albums like the instrumental N.E.W.S. and the draggy, preachy The Rainbow Children). I saw him at the Target Center that year, with The Time opening up. It was transcendent to finally witness his uncanny showmanship in person. I saw him only two more times: From the 10th row at the Orpheum Theater where he played guitar and sang backup for his then-protege Tamar (though he briefly took the spotlight to perform Partyman off the Batman soundtrack); and at the 7/7/07 Target Center show where he made us wait outside, but more than made up for it inside.

I probably could have seen him perform a few more times had I been willing to make the trek to Chanhassen and Paisley Park. I've never been the late-night type, so I wasn't ever super-motivated to stand outside late at night in a long line on the slim chance that Prince might make a fleeting appearance, perform one song, or take me to a movie (as he did not long ago with a group of partygoers). Now, of course, I wish I'd done it at least once.

Lest this piece seem like hagiography, I'll say that my love for Prince wasn't unconditional nor unqualified. His quality control wasn't always great, and so there are several of his songs that I'd be just fine never hearing again. And it's difficult for me to get past the 2008 New Yorker piece in which Prince appeared to condemn homosexuality. Now, there're some reports that say Prince was angry about that article and claimed to have been misquoted, but even if any element of it was true it's terribly disappointing. This is a man who challenged so many gender norms and sexual mores in his dress, songs, and videos and whose closest musical collaborators in his most popular period were a lesbian couple, so it's just too dissonant to think that he couldn't handle the idea of same sex love.

Just as I moved to Minnesota in the throes of a Prince obsession, I will be leaving in one as well. In a few weeks my wife, two sons and I are moving to Illinois. The fact that Prince died 28 days before we plan to vacate his home city is surely a sign that we've made the right decision.

I think and hope I might be passing my passion on to my sons. In 2014 I put the Prince song "Art Official Cage" as the first track on the annual mix I create. While I was testing the mix out in the car, that song caught then-4-year-old Peter's ear. "Play it again," he demanded. Now, this was remarkable for a couple of reasons: 1) Peter hadn't shown much interest in any specific music since he was an infant, and 2) the song itself is odd, a schizophrenic mash of EDM, hip-hop, and operatic pop. So we listened again, and again, and again until it became known as his "favorite song." It's two years later and he still calls it that.

When I told him last week that the singer of his favorite song died, he said, "But we still have the disc, right?"

Speaking of favorite songs, here are 15 of mine. Of course they could change next week, but here's the current hot take:

1) "The Beautiful Ones" (Purple Rain, 1984)
2) "Raspberry Beret" (Around the World in a Day, 1985)
3) "Movie Star" (Crystal Ball, 1998)
4) "Uptown" (Dirty Mind, 1980)
5) "Paisley Park" (Around the World in a Day, 1985)
6) "Sometimes in Snows in April" (Under the Cherry Moon, 1986)
7) "Courtin' Time" (Emancipation, 1996)
8) "Gold" (The Gold Experience, 1995)
9) "Love" (3121, 2006)
10) "My Name is Prince" (Love Symbol Album, 1992)
11) "Call My Name" (Musicology, 2004)
12) - 15) Side 3 of Sign o' the Times, 1987: ("U Got the Look," "If I Was Your Girlfriend," "Strange Relationship," and "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man")

I've written about Prince a lot over the years: Here's the official 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds Prince archive:

Rock Bottom (an examination of his worst album)
Rock Solid (an examination of his best album)
Batman review
12 Written by Prince (a list of songs he wrote for other artists)
Musicology review
3121 review
Lotusflower/MPLSound/Elixer reviews

And here are the write-ups I did on his three films for the Baby, I'm a Star blog:
Purple Rain
Under the Cherry Moon
Grafitti Bridge

Monday, April 25, 2016

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Through the Cracks in the Past

And I'm gone
Now I'm older than movies
And I know who's there
When silhouettes fall
And I'm gone
Like I'm dancing on angels
And I'm gone
Through the cracks in the past
Like a dead man walking
-David Bowie, Dead Man Walking

I was surprised by the depth of loss I felt when I learned David Bowie died, and it has taken me some time to unpack why.

What is it that we mourn when a pop culture icon dies?

There's the loss of the art they would have made had they gone on living. There's sympathy for the family they left behind, especially if there were young children. There's the manner of the death itself: accident, suicide, cancer. Any combination of these factors is reason enough to mourn, but none quite explain why we feel deep sadness in losing someone we didn't know. I believe that the degree of our mourning is in direct relation to how many fond memories we have of that icon's work. That's why it feels personal.

I also tend to more fully appreciate something when it's clearly over. And lest that statement seem like a rewording of "you don't know what you got 'til it's gone," let me clarify: I can appreciate a story while it's ongoing, but that appreciation is deepened by knowing the end. Much in the way a book or movie can only truly be judged on the second time through when you know where it's all leading. You can place everything in context and appreciate the way it all fits together.

Bowie's death was an especially poignant example of this, given that he passed only two days after releasing a new album on his 69th birthday, after battling cancer for over a year. The fact that he knew Blackstar could be his last album and was able to use the songs (and the videos for the title track and Lazarus) to comment upon his impending mortal leave, well that's just a fantastic ending to a creative life.

But as to the personal connection, I suppose my surprise comes in that I'd never before reflected upon how deeply Bowie and his music had infiltrated my pop culture experiences. I came to Bowie fandom late; I have no childhood memories of him I can call upon. I didn't even see Labyrinth when it came out, which is exceedingly strange considering its combination of music, Muppets, and fantasy was exactly in my 10-year-old wheelhouse. It wasn't until college, during my self-guided tour through pop music history, that I started listening to his music.

I've written before about the sequence of events that led me to my first Bowie album, 1987's Never Let Me Down. I loved that record, and so from there bought the Singles 1969-1993 collection on CD at the local Disc-Go-Round. I listened almost exclusively to the second disc, which starts with "Heroes" and runs through his poppy '80s work. At first the older stuff seemed creaky and odd to me, but then I got my hands on 1972's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and my mind was blown. It's a fantastic record, and the "To be read at maximum volume" instruction at the top of this blog is a homage to it (the back cover reads "To be played at maximum volume").

In the lead up to 1997's Earthling, Bowie appeared on Saturday Night Live. That night I had dinner with my dad, step-mom, and a couple of their friends, Ron and Tom. Ron brought up Bowie's SNL appearance, and I said that I'd read the new album was all electronic and a big change in direction. Ron said, "I'll listen to him no matter what he does." That comment stuck with me probably because it was the first time I saw an adult display obsessive fandom. I bought Earthling partially on the strength of that endorsement, and played it quite a bit. In fact, the live acoustic version of that album's Dead Man Walking is one of my all-time favorite songs.

I bought every new Bowie album from then on and enjoyed them to varying degrees, but when The Next Day arrived in 2013, nothing from it caught my ear immediately. So I was on the fence about Blackstar until I saw the video for the title track. I knew immediately that this was something special; the mysterious, creepy visuals accompanying a mysterious song with wild musical mood swings; this was something I could get into. Musically it seemed almost like a revue of some of Bowie's most memorable styles: the electronic, the balladry, the soul, all wrapped up in a new avant-garde jazz setting.

Of course, now the style shifts and lyrics makes sense; it was Bowie's way of looking back while still moving forward. I really think the shock I felt at his death was at least halfway indebted to my strong reaction to hearing that song and seeing that video just a few days before.

The fact that this final revelation came in the form of film should be no surprise. Bowie was one of the first pop stars to recognize the importance of visual presentation (which is why his song Sound and Vision is the most perfect summation of him as an artist). And as such I find that the strongest Bowie memories and associations I have are related to movies or videos.

One rainy Saturday in 2002 I went record shopping in Uptown and purchased the DVD compilation that accompanied the Best of Bowie album that had just been released. I settled in and watched it all the way through that gloomy afternoon and, for whatever reason, that experience stays in my mind as a perfect moment in time. To try explain why that is would be to ruin it, but it's probably safe to say the music was a big part of it. And then of course there's Labryinth, and its unforgettable soundtrack, and there's the Changes quote at the beginning of The Breakfast Club, and there's Seu Jorge's renditions of Bowie songs that populate Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic (as well as the iconic final scene scored by Queen Bitch). There're nonmusical ones that stick with me too, mainly Bowie's brief cameo as an FBI agent in Fire Walk With Me (the Twin Peaks movie) and his turn as Nikola Tesla in The Prestige.

And that's the bright spot in dealing with the death of an artist you admired but didn't know. Their work and the connections you've made to it are always accessible. Bowie, because of the pervasiveness and range and sheer quality of his creative output, has left us countless cracks in the past through which we can revisit him.

Bowie lives.