We are here, and we’re going to have a good time, like we’ve been before… supposedly.
The Monkees’ new album, Good Times, comes out next week, but if you’re in Canada, or know how to use a VPN, it’s available for legal streaming from CBC Music…
After listening to Good Times three times in quick succession, I’m still undecided about it, and in two minds. I’m finding it impossible to decide if this is the best Monkees album since Head, or the best Monkees album ever.
I’m leaning towards the former for now, but the fact that I can even ask the question is, in itself, telling — those earlier albums had songs I’ve loved for thirty years or more, songs which hundreds of millions of people know. To be able to say about new music from these people that it definitely stands up well in comparison to those records is a minor miracle.
The album was recorded earlier this year, and produced by Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne. Schlesinger and Mike Viola (who appears on guitar and keyboards) have a history of creating 60s and 70s pastiche records, ranging from their soundtrack to That Thing You Do to Viola’s L.E.O. project, which managed to be a much better ELO album than anything Jeff Lynne ever did.
And the album is very much a celebration of the band’s entire history. Along with songs written by the three surviving Monkees, they’ve dug up songs from the 60s that they never finished, contributed by Boyce & Hart, Nilsson, and Goffin & King — and the latter, a version of “Wasn’t Born To Follow”, allows them also to include the Wrecking Crew via a 60s backing track. They’ve also included the late Davy Jones via a previously-released Neil Diamond track, “Love to Love”, which has new backing vocals added.
So there’s a danger, perhaps, that the album might have sounded a little pastichey, and stuck in the past. And certainly the first half at least may seem a little… safe, is perhaps the best word. The first four or five songs in particular sound like they were aimed directly at me and whatever demographic I’m in, and one might almost say cynically so — except that I know Andrew Sandoval was involved in making this album, and Sandoval’s tastes happen to overlap with mine to such a huge extent that I’m fairly safe in saying it’s just the people involved making the kind of music they want to make.
The album was recorded in a very short period of time, and seems to have been made to the same template as Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd, with basic tracks recorded by a mixture of studio musicians and the Monkees themselves — the backing band for most tracks seems to consist of Michael Nesmith on guitar, Peter Tork on banjo and keyboards, Schlesinger, Viola, and Pete Min on guitar, bass, and keyboards, and Brian Young on drums and percussion. Dolenz apparently contributed drums, too, but we don’t yet have full session credits for the album. Coco Dolenz and Christian Nesmith also contributed.
Good Times manages to encompass every style of the Monkees’ music, and allow them to try a few styles they’ve never worked in before, while still sounding like a cohesive album, despite its patchwork origins. You can, sometimes, hear the joins, but this is a record that works as a unified whole in a way no post-1968 Monkees album does (even the good ones, of which there are a couple, are patchworks). It sounds like very late 1966 and very early 1967, heard through a mid-90s filter, and has none of the production artefacts that would make the album sound 2016, in the way that Pool It! sounds 1987 or Justus 1997.
It’s very much an album of two halves — much like the Beach Boys’ mid-sixties albums, it has a first half made up mostly of light pop music, while side two is much heavier, darker, and meatier. This can make the album seem, perhaps, deceptively lightweight on first listen, as the fun stuff is the first impression, but it’s an album that repays careful listening.
(All lead vocals, unless noted, are Micky Dolenz)
Good Times, the opening track, is one of several songs Harry Nilsson wrote for the band, and a backing track with Nilsson’s guide vocal was recorded, produced by Nesmith, in the late 60s, featuring Nilsson on keyboards, Nesmith on guitar, “Fast” Eddie Hoh on drums and Rick Dey on bass. With the addition of a new vocal from Micky Dolenz and a guitar solo from Schlesinger, it’s been turned into a duet with his dead friend.
As a Nilsson fan, I had some reservations about this, but in fact it works really well, with Dolenz scatting around Nilsson’s own “whoop”s and “yeah”s on the fade — it sounds like a duet, and that’s even when you’ve heard the original recording and know exactly how it was modified. And the song itself, while not one of Nilsson’s best as a song, is funky and fun as hell, with a similar feel to “Circle Sky” from Head in its whitebread Bo Diddleyisms. A perfect opener.
You Bring The Summer is even better. Written by Andy Partridge, it’s the best piece of pop music he’s written since side one of Skylarking, just an utterly joyous piece of summertime pop music. Yes, the middle eight is very, very, like that of “Dear Madame Barnum” from Nonsuch, but the musical material is used to totally different ends here, and the doubling of the twelve-string guitar and xylophone is an inspired little touch. And hearing Nez sing a deep, low, “baby” on the tag while we have backwards guitar straight out of Revolver (a reference we’re going to see again), Beach Boys block harmonies, and a giggling laughing gnome on the fade, conjures up a 1960s that never really existed but does now.
Partridge said of the song that he was conjuring up his inner Neil Diamond (because, he said, doing Goffin & King is too hard) and there’s definitely some evidence of that here — it sounds very like “Love to Love” actually — but what it sounds like, more than anything else, is “Earn Enough For Us” crossed with “Dear Madam Barnum”. Some XTC fans I know think it sounds *too* like those, but I’m just glad to hear new music from Andy Partridge, and hearing it with Micky and Nez’s vocals is just icing on the cake.
(Incidentally, I’ve recently been reading Partridge’s new book about his songwriting, and recommend it to all XTC fans — and he makes it very clear in there just how much of a Monkees fan he is.)
She Makes Me Laugh, by Rivers Cuomo, is somewhat let down by the sequencing, as it’s another twelve-string based bubblegum-powerpop song with an entirely positive outlook, and the two together can seem slightly samey. On its own merits, though, this is just lovely in a faux-naive Jonathan Richman way, with lines like “we’ll have a dinner date tonight, and play some Scrabble with the guys/And wear our pink party hats”. It’s a lovely piece of innocent joy, with a touch of Morrissey in the choruses.
It’s also fascinating to hear Dolenz’s vocal choices here — he sings in a surprising number of voices, and it’s a much more subtle performance than you might think at first. And again, gorgeous to hear Nez and Micky singing together.
Our Own World, by Schlesinger, is a perfect evocation of a particular kind of late-60s/early-70s sunshine pop, pitched somewhere between Nilsson, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Paul McCartney, and Paul Williams, ending up with something very like the powerpop singer/songwriter Mark Bacino (who Monkees and Nilsson fans should check out, incidentally). It sounds utterly familiar, with its staccato harpsichord crotchets and twisty melody.
A friend compared this to a song by the Brady Bunch which I’ve not heard, but the thing it sounds most like to me is Linus of Hollywood. Retro sunshine pop, but charming and clever.
Those who complained at the early singles from this album because they were too poppy and light will love Gotta Give It Time, a Jeff Barry/Joey Levine song from the 60s. It’s a wonderful stomping garage-rock ball of frustrated teenage testosterone that sounds exactly like the Standells, and if it had been released in the 60s it would have been another “She” or “Stepping Stone”. The one minor niggle I have with the track is that Nez and Peter Tork’s backing vocals sound too adult and restrained, without quite the level of freewheeling exuberance the track needs, but this is more than made up for by Micky’s yelped lead.
Me and Magdalena by Ben Giddard (of Death Can For Cutie, a band whose work I’m not very familiar with) is very much the odd track out here — it sounds like a piece of 90s alternative rock, in a post-Automatic For The People way. It’s a grower, I think — I like it now more than on first listen — but it doesn’t really fit the feel of the rest of the album, and it’s the only new song here that doesn’t sound tailored to the band. Micky and Michael’s harmonies are exquisite, though — their blend is for me the true sound of the Monkees, and it’s wonderful to hear it again, and to hear a Nez lead.
I’m very much in a minority, though — this is the one that everyone else seems to be singling out as the highlight of the album, so much so that the band actually recorded two versions of it (the other version, a psych-rock arrangement, will be a bonus track on the digital version).
Whatever’s Right is a Boyce and Hart leftover from 1966, and is a return to the pop sound of the first few tracks — a three-chord jangle-pop thing that sounds like it could have been a hit for Gerry & the Pacemakers or Herman’s Hermits. Fun but insubstantial.
The track itself is a totally new recording, though it sounds exactly like it could have come from the mid-60s, and features Bobby Hart on organ and backing vocals and Coco Dolenz on backing vocals.
Love to Love is a strange one — people wondered why a song that has already seen multiple releases on archival albums (including appearing on the career-spanning Music Box box set) should be on the album, and John Hughes of Rhino talked about how it was going to sound dramatically different, so people wondered what he meant. In the end, what he meant was… some new backing vocals in the chorus, and possibly some extra rhythm guitar, but otherwise the exact same track we already have. (There may be bits of a different vocal take in there, but I’m not sure — I haven’t A-B’d against the two near-identical takes we already have). Yes, it’s nice to have Davy represented, but frankly this is a disappointment. As a track, though, it’s great, and anyone who doesn’t already know the song will enjoy finally having it.
Little Girl is a rather lovely song that Peter Tork has played live for many decades (I have bootlegs of him performing it in the 70s, and he released it on a live album with James Stanley a decade or two ago), and which he’s finally managed to record in the studio.
The song was originally written for Davy Jones to sing, but fits Tork’s vocal style much better. It’s a Lovin’ Spoonful style country-folk-rock ballad with a lot of unusual metrical changes (it’s mostly in waltz time, but there are a couple of dropped beats and the stresses change in odd ways), which perfectly fits Tork’s aged voice — Tork’s vocals were never the strongest, but the fragility of age has actually added to his vocal charm enormously, and now he sounds almost like Willie Nelson. Dolenz adds some nice understated backing vocals.
I absolutely love this, but seem to be in the minority — everyone else seems to think it the weakest track on the album. But if you like Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful (an album which this one resembles in feel, actually), you’ll like this track. “Like the rising sun over the sea, shiny and soft like my song”.
Birth of an Accidental Hipster by Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller is, as one would expect from the writers, very derivative, but the chain of influences is so strange that it makes for a fascinating and wonderful record. This is a California pop band’s interpretation of Madchester interpreting the phased psychedelia of The Creation. It keeps going from sounding like Happy Mondays to sounding like Revolver, often in the middle of a phrase, and Nez’s phased lead vocals are extraordinary — and then there’s the middle eight, a banjo-led plonky thing with Micky singing which sounds like nothing so much as some of the lighter bits of Smile, before the track fades out on a nod to “Rain” by the Beatles. This is up there with “Shorty Blackwell” and “Writing Wrongs” — and I mean that in a good way.
Those three people who are familiar with my music — this is *exactly* what I was going for with my song “Independence Day”/”Think Carefully For Victory” — a heavy Beatles psychedelic verse with phasing and backwards guitar and trance-like drums, and a country-vaudeville middle eight.
“Old friends say, oh he’s lost his way, but they can’t see what I can see/Oh I’ll never come back, I’m heading out in the sunshine baby”
“It’s late and I’m scared so please don’t be long/I’m still not sure where I came from/feeling low”
This is just absolutely perfect.
Wasn’t Born to Follow is a Goffin/King song, famously recorded by the Byrds, but here using a vintage 60s Wrecking Crew backing track cut for The Birds, the Bees and the Monkees, with some new banjo and psychedelic lead guitar overdubs, and with a new Tork vocal. I’d never noticed until hearing this version just how much “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen is obviously inspired by this song — so much that I’m actually amazed Goffin and King didn’t sue Cohen — but this is gorgeous. It’s Tork’s best vocal ever, and the song perfectly suits his new, raspier, voice. Tork’s never been a technically great singer, but as he’s grown older and frailer he’s managed to develop a voice that’s great for this kind of country-folk, in the same way that Cohen, or Willie Nelson, or Johnny Cash used their own older voices.
I Know What I Know is a song that Nez had previously released solo, in a version I didn’t think much of, but here it’s stripped of the synths that were all over his solo version, and a lovely, lovely, ballad is revealed — this sounds like nothing so much as Lennon at his solo best. It could come from a Dakota demo, or be an outtake from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. The instrumentation is stripped right down — piano chords, some very intimately recorded acoustic (almost more finger noise than actual guitar), and a strange string part on the instrumental break (it sounds like real strings, but recorded backwards, to my ears — the attack is very odd), and the song’s carried almost entirely by Nez’s voice, a little fragile round the edges but remarkably preserved, one of the great underrated voices in popular music.
In this version you can hear a song that could easily be part of the Great American Songbook — Tony Bennett or Nat King Cole could have sung this.
Apparently the original intention was to have Dolenz sing lead on this, and he may have even cut a lead vocal — if so I’d love to hear his take on it. But I’m *very* happy that we have a final(?) great Nez song and vocal with the Monkees.
And the album ends with I Was There And I’m Told I Had A Good Time by Schlesinger and Dolenz, a joke track riffing on “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, and coming out so exactly like “Major Happy’s One And Only Once Upon A Good Time Band” by the Rutles, even down to Dolenz singing in a voice that sounds like Neil Innes doing John Lennon, that it must surely be one Prefab Four paying tribute to the other. It’s a lightweight end (I’d have swapped the last two tracks around, a la the end of Pepper, but that’s just me) but nicely bookends the album with the similar title track.
It’s the only Monkees album without a single actual bad track on it (Head doesn’t count as half the running time is spoken word stuff), it’s the first Monkees reunion album not to already sound dated on its release, and it’s the first time they’ve sounded like a real group since Head. It’s a minor miracle, and whether it grows on me to the point that I consider it their best album, or whether the lustre wears off a bit and it ends up only being one of their better ones, it’s still far more vibrant than a bunch of seventy-year-old men singing songs mostly written by people in their fifties have any right to be. This doesn’t sound like the end of a career, but like the beginning of one…
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EDIT — it has been brought to my attention by a Monkees fan on Facebook that the majority of the “younger” writers on the album aren’t in their fifties. This is correct. Only Weller is, with two more turning forty-nine this year and Partridge in his early sixties. I am very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, sorry for this gross inaccuracy which of course invalidates everything else I said.