Yesterday, the world provided one of those rare coincidences that pretty much demand a blog post from me. The lead singers from two of my very favourite bands released new solo albums. More precisely still, the lead singers from two bands that I’ve written books about released new solo albums. New solo albums which included remakes of many of their biggest hits.
The famously hat-wearing lead singers of two bands I’ve written about, who are both known by diminutive forms of the name “Michael” and come from LA, released solo albums which included remakes of many of their biggest hits.
If the world doesn’t want me to do compare/contrast blog posts about things like that, it needs to work harder.
Mike Love, the nasal lead singer of the Beach Boys, hadn’t released a proper solo album since 1981, but has finally released Unleash the Love, an album which, in various forms, he’s been promising would be out soon since the mid-2000s. Micky Dolenz, meanwhile, has kept up a low-key output of new solo material over the last few years, ranging from albums of rerecordings of his favourite 60s hits, to live recordings of Broadway songs, to an album of covers of Carole King songs. Out of Nowhere is his latest live album, this time performed with the Metropole Orchestra, an orchestra devoted to playing “American vernacular music” (jazz, folk, soul, pop, blues, and so forth).
Before I get to the reviews, a declaration of interest — I’m friendly with Iain Lee, the co-owner of 7A Records, which released the Dolenz set. I’m also friendly, though less so, with some of Love’s band members, and in both cases I value those friendships, so take that into account.
Of the two albums, Love’s is probably the more surprising to those who haven’t followed the performer’s career with the obsessive interest I have. Most casual fans of the Beach Boys — and even those who are fairly interested — know Love as the man who’s spent the last thirty-plus years endlessly recycling the same few lyrical motifs — mentioning the titles of old Beach Boys songs, fun at the beach, wasn’t it good when we were Beach Boys and had fun singing old Beach Boys songs at the Beach? — in every song he’s contributed to a new Beach Boys record.
So listeners may be surprised to discover that Unleash the Love (it could be worse — another title he was talking about for the unreleased 2004 version of this album was Mike Love, Not War) doesn’t address those topics at all — at least on its first disc, which is the album proper. (The second disc is an album of rerecordings by the current touring Beach Boys lineup of much of their current live set). In fact, if you can get past a few major flaws, it’s a surprisingly thoughtful, listenable, album.
Unfortunately, the single biggest flaw renders it almost unlistenable by itself — this is an album that is swathed in autotune. Not every track is affected equally — some of these tracks are largely or entirely taken from the unreleased version of the album from 2004, and those are largely unaffected, but much of the album (and all of the second disc) was recorded last year, and Love’s vocals in particular are absolutely slathered in autotune on those tracks, to the point that he sounds like a robot.
This is particularly galling because Love rightly criticised the overuse of autotune on the Beach Boys’ 2012 reunion projects in his autobiography, and has taken occasional pot-shots at Brian Wilson for his use of it on his solo stuff. To be clear, to my ears, this is exactly as unlistenable as when it’s used on Brian Wilson’s most recent album, No Pier Pressure, and just as unnecessary. Both men are perfectly capable of singing on key — even though they’ve got older and their voices aren’t what they were, they’re still two members of the greatest vocal harmony group ever. In both cases it’s a tin-eared attempt at sounding current that already sounds as dated as their 80s attempts to be down with the kids by having rapping on their records do.
However, if you can get past that (and some people can — I know many people who claim to be completely unable to hear autotune on any of these recordings) and don’t mind hearing songs that sound like they’re sung by a Speak-And-Spell, there’s plenty to enjoy on disc one of the album.
For those of us who know the origins of this material, that shouldn’t be too surprising — this is essentially Love’s third attempt to release an album of this material. In the late 70s, he recorded an album, which remains unreleased, titled First Love, which contained several of the songs on this one. He ditched about half the songs for that, wrote new songs, and recorded a new album under the same title as this one in 2004, and then he ditched some of those songs, added some new ones, and largely rerecorded everything, for this version. He’s had forty years to gather the best of his solo material together and assemble it into something coherent and, other than the autotune, he’s largely succeeded.
And so what we have here is probably the closest Mike Love will ever come to an actual artistic statement, a labour of love (oh God, now I’ve started doing it) which presents his genuine view of the world, uncoupled from the need to record a dozen retreads of “Kokomo”. It’s a largely mid-tempo affair, which varies between quite pretty ballads and polite, slightly world-music and gospel inflected, funk pop. Musically, this sounds like the kind of thing that early adopters of the CD were listening to at their dinner parties in 1987. Other than the autotune, its best moments would fit smoothly in between tracks from “Brothers in Arms”, “Graceland”, Peter Gabriel’s eighties work and Tracy Chapman’s first album.
Lyrically, too, it’s very much of that 80s dad-rock ilk — the earnest white middle-aged rock star who has heard a soul record once and so feels the need to namecheck “brother Marvin”, and who is absolutely desperate to tell you that being spiritual, protecting the environment, and love are good, while war is a very bad thing.
Some of the material will be familiar to Beach Boys fans — “Getcha Back” is a remake and partial rewrite of the band’s big eighties hit, “Cool Head, Warm Heart” appeared (in the exact same recording) on a Beach Boys compilation in 2007, a different recording of “Pisces Brothers” was released as a solo MP3 single (and Love has included it regularly in Beach Boys live shows since 2013), and a different recording of “Daybreak Over the Ocean” appeared on the most recent Beach Boys album, 2012’s That’s Why God Made the Radio. (And for Beach Boys completists, this version of that song features a sample of Carl Wilson singing in the intro, taken from the First Love sessions — a sample of Wilson also appears on the remake of “Brian’s Back” on disc two).
But actually, much of the most interesting material is the stuff that hasn’t been heard before — “Ram Raj” is a genuinely good song, an attempt at raga rock based on a chant of “Sri Ram Raj Ram Raj Ram Raj”, while “10,000 Years Ago” (a song that apparently started as a collaboration with Dennis Wilson, though both men later took their own bits of the song and made separate songs out of them) is a nice bit of swamp-rock that could almost be a Doctor John record, and which shows how much of Love’s melodic sensibility comes from Leiber and Stoller’s work for the Coasters.
On the other hand, the last track, “Make Love Not War” wasn’t even very good when Robert Palmer originally recorded it as “Addicted to Love”, and lyrics like “Make love, not war/What in the world is all the fighting for?/Give peace a chance/The world could use an evolutionary advance” don’t improve it.
The second disc is a disappointment. It’s largely a recording of the current touring Beach Boys performing a chunk of their live set in the studio, and that could be a genuinely nice thing to have, at least for those of us who like the current touring band (and I honestly think they’re as good as the Beach Boys have ever sounded live). Unfortunately, while for the most part these are meticulous recreations of the original arrangements (this is not like Love’s 90s recordings, which were all drum machine and Casio keyboard sounding — these reproduce things like the lovely rubbery bass sound on “Help Me Rhonda”), and Love’s current band are fantastically talented (especially vocalist/guitarists Jeffrey Foskett and Scott Totten and drummer/vocalist John Cowsill), and turn in superlative performances here Love’s vocals are autotuned out of all recognition. “California Girls” or “I Get Around” sound great right up until the point when the robo-Mike comes in.
The second disc is also not helped by a bunch of not-so-special guests. “Do It Again” is not improved by having 90s teen heartthrob John Stamos and 90s one-hit-wonder Mark McGrath (lead singer of Sugar Ray) shouting “do it!” all over it and making “pew pew” noises. “Darlin'” features a current indie band, AJR, who add precisely nothing of worth, and “Warmth of the Sun” and “Kiss Me Baby” feature Love’s daughter Ambha, whose overly-mannered vocals are reminiscent of her cousins Carnie and Wendy. “Kiss Me Baby” is also the worst offender when it comes to autotune, which is a shame as it’s one of the best songs the Beach Boys ever recorded.
But even here, there are highlights. “Wild Honey”, featuring John Cowsill on lead vocals, is stunning. It’s performed as they play it live, which is a rough recreation of the 1970s live arrangement, and it’s a stomping, psychedelic-soul rocker with Cowsill screaming his lead vocals. I absolutely *love* it, and it’s the best thing any Beach Boy has done in the studio since Brian’s 2008 album That Lucky Old Sun. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” with Jeff Foskett on lead is perfectly enjoyable, though marred by the autotune on Love in the middle eight, and the version of “Good Vibrations”, also featuring Foskett on lead, doesn’t even have that problem.
You could probably put together one decent disc out of the two CDs’ worth of material, combining new material and remakes in the same way that Love’s old bandmate Al Jardine did on his 2010 album A Postcard From California. The sad thing is though that this could have been two perfectly decent discs were it not for MIchael Lloyd’s tin-eared production choices.
Micky Dolenz’s Out of Nowhere, on the other hand, is less ambitious than Love’s album, but an infinitely more satisfying listen. Recorded in April this year with the American Metropole Orchestra, it’s essentially a run-through of Dolenz’s standard solo live set, along with a couple of instrumentals by the orchestra.
Much of the material will be familiar to fans of Dolenz — I’m even able to speak along with some of the between-song chatter — but it’s presented in a new manner that allows one to listen to it with fresh ears.
It opens with an instrumental, “Lip Sinker”, by the orchestra’s musical director, Keller Coker, who along with Dolenz’s guitarist and MD Wayne Avers was joint musical director of the show. The instrumental immediately tells you what kind of “orchestra” this is — think Count Basie Orchestra or Asphalt Orchestra rather than Royal Philharmonic. This is a band playing the kind of thickly-orchestrated jazz fusion that people like Tom Scott specialise in, with a large horn section playing harmonised melody lines in a slick, 70s New York, manner. For those of you who are familiar with Frank Zappa’s 1988 live albums Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life and Make a Jazz Noise Here, the sound of this band is exactly the same as those.
This adds more to some tracks than the others — on the opening track, “Last Train to Clarksville”, for example, the orchestra are doing little that’s different from what the Monkees’ live band did in the years from 1988 through 2011 (when, apparently at Davy Jones’ instigation, they had a large horn section themselves).
And in general, the Boyce and Hart or Neil Diamond songs which are some of the best-known tracks here (“Clarksville”, “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”, “I’m A Believer”, and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You”) are those that are least well served by the orchestrations. Those songs are mostly three- or four-chord rockers with little harmonic sophistication, and there’s not much you can do with them arrangement-wise, other than just have the horns play the riff. Those performances end up sounding a little oppressive — the arrangements are too thick and tend to try to make these light pop songs carry more weight than they can bear.
On the other hand, the Goffin and King songs (with the exception of the comparatively simple “Pleasant Valley Sunday”) are far more harmonically complex and are absolutely meant for this kind of take — “Porpoise Song” in particular sounds absolutely gorgeous, with Coker’s arrangement capturing most of the best elements of Jack Nitzsche’s orchestration for the original. That song is one that absolutely requires an arrangement to go big — one of the greatest live musical experiences of my life was seeing Dolenz and Peter Tork performing as the Monkees in 2015, and the whole Polyphonic Spree coming out in the encore to perform this one with them. This version captures much of the joy of that version, and Coker’s thick, layered version of the coda to the track should really have closed the set — you can’t really go anywhere once you’ve gone that big. It’s not the definitive reading of the song — that’s still the original studio version — but it’s probably the definitive live recording of it.
“Sometime in the Morning”, similarly, works beautifully, with an arrangement that slyly alludes to “Someday Man” at a couple of points, though to my ears it’s taken a fraction too quickly. And the Leiber/Stoller song “D.W. Washburn” is perfectly suited to treatment with a full horn section.
But the real highlight is “Since I Fell For You”, an old blues standard that has been performed by everyone from Nina Simone to Doris Day. This has been a regular part of Dolenz’s live set, both with the Monkees and solo, since at least 2001, but I’ll have to be honest — it’s never been a favourite of mine in his live performances. He’s tended rather to bellow the song, and treat it as an exercise in vocal power rather than an opportunity to interpret the song with much nuance.
That’s not the case here. Dolenz’s vocals throughout the album are excellent — he’s one of the few singers of his generation who have retained most of their vocal ability, and he sounds better than most singers half his age, but he’s been known to phone in the performance a little on occasion. That’s not a criticism — he’s been singing the same dozen or so songs for fifty years now, and you can’t have the same enthusiasm for singing “I’m A Believer” on your ten thousandth time that you do on the first, and I’ve never known of him giving a less than professional performance. But on occasion “professional” is all it’s been, rather than anything better.
This time, though, he rises to the occasion — clearly performing with this orchestra felt like enough of a special occasion that it caused him to up his game, and he’s at his vocal best here. And in particular, “Since I Fell For You” sounds almost like a different song — while he still goes for his full-belt vocal blast at the end, the first few verses are practically whispered (and Dolenz has one of the best whispers in the business). It’s an infinitely more nuanced interpretation of the song than I’ve ever heard from him before, and it works staggeringly well.
Out of Nowhere will never replace the original studio versions of these songs, but of the many live recordings, both official and unofficial, of Dolenz performing this material that I’ve heard, it’s both the most interesting in terms of arrangement and possibly the best in terms of Dolenz’s own performance. One could perhaps wish for a slightly more adventurous, and longer, setlist — this band would work wonders with some of Dolenz’s own more experimental material, like “Shorty Blackwell” or “Mommy and Daddy”, and I’d far rather hear that, or something like “As We Go Along”, than their takes on the big hits — but at worst these are live versions that add nothing to the originals but still sound perfectly pleasant, and at best they’re fresh and interesting takes on the material.
You probably already knew, before even reading this, whether you were going to buy either or both of these albums, but if you’re on the fence… after listening to Out of Nowhere I’m feeling like putting on some of my Monkees albums again, because it’s reminded me of why I love that music. Even though Love’s clearly trying harder, I can’t say the same for Unleash the Love.
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