A Good Time Victory Lap

Here they come and they are not monkeying around

Fifty years (!) past the original wave of Monkeemania comes a new album from 1966’s made-for-TV pop group the Monkees. Having slowly gained more and more credibility with the passage of time and excellent touring work, the surviving members of the group (Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork) and custodians of the brand are marking this milestone anniversary with an onslaught of Monkee product. While reissues of the TV show and classic back catalog of albums are a no-brainer, there was genuine risk involved in putting together a new studio album. Past attempts at doing this (1987’s Pool It! and 1996’s Justus) have produced greatly mixed results. Considering how most people engage with vintage acts today, there really is no need to even do so. It is much easier for an act like the Monkees to simply trot out their old hits, of which there are many. The only reason to produce a new record would be to add to an already significant legacy, which in the case of the Monkees is a pretty Herculean task.

Thankfully, the brain trust at Rhino Records including John Hughes, Mark Pinkus and the ever-reliable archivist Andrew Sandoval came up with the perfect strategy: go back to the Brill Building formula of the early records while aiming for the high-water mark of 1967’s Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. This involved digging up unfinished recordings from the group’s heyday along with enlisting a new crop of tunesmiths simpatico with the Monkees’ aesthetic. Another key decision was paring the surviving members with Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne as their producer. His sensibilities along with his multi-instrumental and songwriting talent prove to be a perfect fit for gently guiding the Monkees into 2016. Each member of the Monkees also contributes strong original material (and instrumental support) to Good Times!

 So the big question here is did they pull it off? As a longtime follower of the group (being a child of the ‘70s re-runs of the show) and more than familiar with all of the larger-than-life, bizarre twists and turns in their history together, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Good Times! is far better than could reasonably be expected and a true gift to fans. Perfectly conceived and beautifully executed, it arrives as an effervescent time capsule of the ‘60s and more than achieves its lofty goal of standing tall with their best work.

The album opens with the title track “Good Times,” salvaged from a surviving demo by the late songwriter Harry Nilsson who posthumously gets to sing along with old friend Micky Dolenz (much like the Beatles created “Free as a Bird,” but done here with a more seamless vocal mix). It’s a rollicking start, reminiscent of a Ray Charles R&B groove and a nice showcase for both singers. In fact, Dolenz sounds great throughout the entire record, whether singing lead as he does on most tracks or providing some of his signature harmony parts. Though his voice has a slightly more mature timbre to it, his range is still incredibly strong and he sounds vibrant (and youthful) on tracks like Andy Partridge’s “You Bring the Summer” and the stomping “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had a Good Time)”. With Davy Jones now gone, Dolenz lives on as the voice of the Monkees.

Speaking of Davy Jones, he is thoughtfully (and effectively) included on Good Times! in the form of a vintage recording of Neil Diamond’s “Love to Love”. Tastefully completed, the song is Jones through and through, providing the requisite corny (but welcome) love song that was his stock-in-trade on all Monkees albums. It’s a real treat hearing his boyish vocals once again. Peter Tork, the group’s soul and multi-instrumentalist is also perfectly showcased on this album. On both “Little Girl” (originally written by Tork as a song for Davy) and Goffin & King original “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” his voice sounds the best it ever has, warm and supple. His banjo prowess also makes a few key appearances as well.

This brings us to the wild card of any Monkees reunion: the appearance of Michael Nesmith. The once-ornery Texan has always hovered as a big question mark over any attempts to re-kindle the brand since they originally disbanded in 1970. Having made significant contributions to music since going solo and well worthy of inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on his own, never mind as being a member of the Monkees (his genre-defining work with the First National Band and coming up with the concept that would later morph into MTV), Nez has always had a one-foot-in, one-foot-out approach to any reunion projects. He did spearhead the spiritual follow-up to Headquarters, 1996’s Justus, but has kept his touring participation minimal. That said, any serious attempt at a new Monkees record needed his voice in the mix. His Monkees songs have always been among their best, providing the deep cuts in the catalog that bear repeated listening. On Good Times!, Nesmith again provides the gravitas: “Me & Magdalena” is easily one of the best things the Monkees have ever recorded. Written by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, the song is wistful, breezy and bittersweet with the classic Mike and Micky vocal harmonies front and center. The Noel Gallagher/Paul Weller-penned “Birth of an Accidental Hipster” is Head-trippy, with Mike’s spacey vocals sounding straight out of ’67/’68. Nesmith also contributes “I Know What I Know,” a plaintive piano ballad that is a real departure from the rest of the material here (as well as their entire canon). The song starts off quite naked and gives way to fuller orchestration. It’s unlike anything in the Monkees discography and makes for an effective penultimate track on the album.

Everyone involved in this project deserves major kudos. There is a lot of heart and soul behind Good Times! and if it proves to be the group’s swan song on record, it is a more-than-worthy one. Faithfully retro without being kitschy, it covers the group’s entire trajectory, from the innocence of the first two albums and the psychedelia of the middle period, straight through to the roots sound of the Nesmith-led late ’60s work. It’s a thoroughly satisfying listening experience. As promised, you’ll have a good time.

 

P.S. The iTunes version of Good Times! includes two bonus tracks that are equally notable: Zach Rogue’s “Terrifying” is worthy of inclusion on the album proper and the melody and harmonies of “Me & Magdalena” work nearly as well in the up-tempo second version. Worth seeking out.

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Reign of Disdain

He looks like a million dollars, is a three-time WWE World Heavyweight Champion with only three-and-a-half years on the main roster, and is poised to be a main eventer for as long as he remains healthy. So what the hell is the problem with Roman Reigns and why is the so-called “WWE Universe” so openly hostile towards him? I mean, this guy is getting some of the greatest heel heat since John Cena. The problem is, again like Cena, he’s another polarizing babyface (good guy in pro-wrestling parlance). It’s all pretty simple really and could’ve easily been avoided by anyone who is even halfway familiar with Wrestling 101, which excludes most of the current WWE writing staff.

Roman Reigns has been very poorly served by WWE booking (basically, those in charge of charting the pre-scripted course all WWE talent follow). This comes from the top down, so ultimately it falls on owner Vince McMahon’s lap. It has nothing to do with Roman Reigns, who is a much better athlete and performer than he needs to be and is still a young talent learning the game. Reigns could easily coast on his looks and size much like Kevin Nash did for his entire career, but Reigns has much more heart for the business than that. The real shame is that Reigns, originally a cool villain, was organically gaining traction with the fans before Vince decided Roman was “THE guy” and proceeded to force him down the everyone’s throat as a fan-favorite waaay ahead of schedule. Now Reigns gets the same dueling chants that follow Cena to this day: woman and children love him; men and smart marks (knowledgeable fans), not so much.

Reigns made his main roster debut in November 2012 as part of a super-cool heel group of young talent called The Shield. Decked out in S.W.A.T. gear, it was a great gimmick and the right balance of talent with Dean Ambrose as the brains and mouthpiece, Seth Rollins as the Shawn Michaels-like wunderkind worker, and Reigns as the silent, but deadly muscle. All three were genuinely over with the WWE audience and could’ve ridden the wave of this gimmick (and merchandise sales) for at least another two-to-three more years than they did. Instead, they were disbanded in June 2014 to allow for each member to become an individual star, with a top spot specially earmarked for Reigns. He had the right size, the right hair, and the right pedigree (being part of the same Anoa’i dynasty that produced Yokozuna, Rikishi and, in a roundabout way, The Rock). His key weakness, not being particularly dynamic on the microphone, was actually a plus while part of The Shield, creating an aura of mystery around him. So there was no way this could not work, right??

Wrong. It was too clear and simple for the WWE not to mess up. They turned Dean Ambrose into the second coming of Brian Pillman, gave Rollins the heel spot, and tried making Roman the fan favorite. What happened? Ambrose gets over with his goofy shtick, Rollins gets over with his unbelievable athleticism, and Reigns gets rejected by the majority of fans who see through the backstage machinations and pandering. Had Reigns been allowed to remain a villain for at least another year or two, and been aligned with a brilliant mouthpiece like Paul Heyman while building up a great highlight reel as the company’s top bad guy, fans would’ve naturally clamored for him to emerge as a hero down the line, as they have for all great company heels dating back to “Superstar” Billy Graham. Heyman managing both Reigns and Brock Lesnar (another heavyweight superstar weak on the mic, but nonetheless super-over due to intelligent booking) could’ve been epic, filled with great teases until the time was right to present Reigns vs. Lesnar as the climax of a long-term, well-thought-out storyline – and finally the beginning of Roman’s face turn.

All of that aside, the truth is that whether fans like it or not Reigns is still money. As the company learned with Cena, the polarized audience reaction still translates into cash. The kids who snatch up the t-shirts and dolls are with Roman. And the “smart” fans continue to buy tickets to root against him. As in any form of entertainment, the worst reaction is no reaction. Passionate dislike can be unbelievably profitable, just ask Floyd “Money” Mayweather. But it’s also a bit jarring when it is obviously not the kind of reaction the WWE or Reigns had in mind. In the long run, the brand name supersedes the individual stars of the WWE anyway. As CM Punk once said in his infamous “pipe bomb” promo, the wheel keeps spinning regardless.

So where do Reigns and the WWE go from here? He is undoubtedly a star and we seem to be stuck with him in this current role for quite a while (WWE can be quite obstinate that way). Right now, he is embroiled in the early stages of a feud with A.J. Styles, probably the best possible opponent for him, both athletically and storyline wise, until Seth Rollins returns from his untimely injury. So far, both Reigns and Styles are “good guys,” but the seeds have been planted for several interesting possibilities. As we saw in their match at Payback last weekend in Chicago, Reigns was nearly booed out of the building in his first title defense as champ, while Styles definitely ascended to the next level as a believable main eventer. The match itself, while almost comically overbooked, succeeded in sustaining fan interest in their feud. But now a clear-cut villain must emerge in order to take this rivalry to the next level. Will it be A.J. Styles and his New Japan posse the Bullet Club or will WWE go with an Attitude-era swerve and give us an unexpected, dramatically-effective heel turn from Roman Reigns? Though I wouldn’t bet on the latter, only time will tell.

My Super-Deluxe Top 10 Music List…Volume 1

A fellow music-lover recently asked me via Facebook to compile a Top 12 list of most influential albums in my life. The rules were simple: do not overthink the process or take too much time. Of course, I did neither. While I did spare him my endless annotations and explanations for each choice, I definitely overthought the whole thing. My basic list was simple enough to put together. Each was a clear enough milestone in my life and musical education. But a funny thing happens when you put together lists like this for public view, especially as a self-professed music historian: a bit of self-consciousness enters the fray. Each of the artists I chose has such a diverse, wide-spanning catalog of music I love. How do I best represent that? Do I go with the albums that helped me discover each artist (and thus, the most personally influential)? Do I go with the cooler entries in the catalog to show off my insight and “superior” taste? Or do I simply go with what I believe to be the best albums made by each?

The critic in me finds these distinctions interesting.  Most Influential Albums is a very personal list tied to specific life experiences and might not always have the same resonance for others. Coolest Albums is a list I’d put together for inside and hardcore fans. And Best Albums is a list of the records I’d throw in a time capsule for posterity. The choices were pretty tough. Categorization of any kind is often hazy.  I honestly believe that if you ask most people to compile a Top 10 list of anything, there would be a substantial difference in the response depending on the intended audience. I’m certain that writers for Rolling Stone or Mojo often put together contrarian lists filled with underground obscurities just to be hipper-than-thou. My list is filled with artists firmly planted in the mainstream (no Velvet Underground or Big Star anywhere to be found, though I respect each). I make no apologies for that. While I love many undiscovered artists, a large part of being truly impactful as a musician is world domination, which is how I was exposed to most of them in the first place. For this blog entry, I have put together a Top 10 Most Influential Albums list identical to the one I sent my friend, but have also included the highly nebulous “coolest” and “best” albums by each artist as well (there is occasional overlap for each act represented). Again, keep in mind that this list represents most personally influential, not most influential of all time.  I’m still waiting for “all time” to come and go so I can put that list together. Might be a while.

My Top 10 Most Influential Albums (in order of release date)

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1. The Monkees by The Monkees

This is the first album I ever owned, passed down from relatives, and set the template for much of what I still look for in music: well-crafted melodies, sunny pop harmonies, and concise songwriting all delivered in tasteful analogue production. The early Monkees albums were the product of a Tin Pan Alley mindset. Later albums (from Headquarters on) only benefitted from the Monkees asserting their independence and taking more control of the music. Probably the coolest album they ever did was the soundtrack to their totally freeform movie Head. It has a loose cut-and-paste quality much like the film itself and was well ahead of its time. But without a doubt, their best album is 1967’s Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., a combination of the Brill Building approach (the use of professional outside songwriters) and the greater hands-on musical involvement of Headquarters. They were a misunderstood pop phenomenon from the very beginning. Thankfully, time and hindsight have placed them in a better light.

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2. Abbey Road – The Beatles

I’ve been a Beatles fan since early childhood. There are pictures of me at 3 years old listening to the White Album on headphones. What can I say, I’ve always had excellent taste in music. Abbey Road is the first album I actually went out and bought as a pre-teen and is still my favorite Beatles album.  You can’t go wrong with any Beatle record, but something about Abbey Road hooked me early. It has pretty much everything that made them great: catchy songs, great vocals, tight ensemble playing, and clever production. Abbey Road has the advantage of maturity and Ringo’s one and only drum solo on record. There is whimsy, silliness, joy and deep heartache on this record. Perhaps the greatest swan song ever committed to vinyl. If you’re looking for the coolest Beatle records, the common choices are Revolver or The Beatles (aka the White Album). In my opinion, their best records are A Hard Day’s Night, Rubber Soul, and my desert island choice Abbey Road.

 

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3. The Wall – Pink Floyd

I casually discovered Pink Floyd on classic rock radio as a teenager, but never put together the vast catalog of great songs until a neighbor threw a Saturday afternoon yard sale where I picked up Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall, and The Final Cut on vinyl. The former two already had legendary reputations, so I bought them to satiate my curiosity and was blown away. At their peak (the ‘70s run from Meddle to The Wall) Pink Floyd were as great as any band that’s ever existed, each album loaded with classic songs on par with the Beatles. I was 16 when I first heard The Wall all the way through and it was the perfect soundtrack to that angst-ridden period of my life. The music had space and beauty to it, but it was Roger Waters’ lyric-writing that took me on the deepest ride. In terms of cool Pink Floyd albums, hipster types might opt for The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, if for no other reason than to pretend that they know who Syd Barrett is. Musos might opt for Animals or Meddle. I love all of their work and they’ve since become one of the seminal bands of my life, so choosing their best is tough. It’s a toss-up between The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon, with Dark Side getting a slight nod due to a tighter narrative (a single disc versus the four sides of The Wall) and greater cohesion.

 

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4. In Through the Out Door – Led Zeppelin

Zep purists would find this choice abominable. It’s not my fault that this, not Led Zeppelin IV, was the first Zeppelin album I was exposed to. With punk and New Wave having shaken up the music industry at the time, the mighty Zep now represented the old guard and were the target of snotty derision (along with other ‘70s institutions like Floyd and Yes). They responded by incorporating new sonic textures onto their heavy blues and hard rock palette. Synth-heavy and a bit proggier than anything in their prior catalog, this album still rocked. Some have noted that it’s the album where bassist John Paul Jones got to shine most, relying heavily on his keyboard arrangements and production ideas. To my ears, it has the same epic, symphonic scope as Abbey Road. I still rate it highly and listen to it more often than the others. If I had to choose their coolest record, I’d have to go with Led Zeppelin I. If you take that and III, you have everything they ever were distilled to its very essence: a heavy new form of blues on one hand and beautiful English folk textures on the other. And if I had to choose the best album by Led Zeppelin, first I would cry at having to make such a cruel decision and then I would put on the man pants and go with Physical Graffiti, probably the greatest and most listenable double-album in the history of rock and roll.

 

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5. Synchronicity – The Police

The biggest and best band on earth in 1983. This album was omnipresent and the single “Every Breath You Take” was inescapable. The band’s good fortune was having the release of Synchronicity dovetail perfectly with the explosion of MTV. As a then 14 year-old, the ballad “Every Breath You Take” did not set me on fire (the sinister stalker subtext flew completely over my head at the time), but the industrial aggression of “Synchronicity II” certainly did. The Synchronicity tour was my first concert experience and as far as concert initiations go, it’s hard to top this band at the peak of its powers on what looked to be their final tour until 2007’s highly-successful reunion. As with Zep, Floyd, and the Beatles, I soon snatched up everything else in their back catalog. Looking back, the coolest Police album is probably the first, Outlandos d’Amour. It has the spiky pseudo-punk energy and passion. Their best is Regatta de Blanc, where all the elements came together to create their classic, signature sound. It has the best balance of energy between all three members before Sting grew too domineering.

 

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6. So – Peter Gabriel

By the mid ‘80s, Peter Gabriel had managed to make a successful transition from prog god in Genesis to edgy and credible  solo star. Beneath the genial, photogenic façade was a slightly twisted mind (just revisit the video for “Shock the Monkey”). After releasing several solid solo albums and signature singles (“Solsbury Hill,” “Games without Frontiers”), So was the album that finally made him a superstar. For the time, the production was state-of-the-art with a polish that gleamed brighter than a new Ferrari. This was adult pop that would set the tone for many grown-up artists, including the solo work of Sting and Don Henley. Overall it has aged pretty well too, with many of its biggest hits still staples of classic rock and pop radio such as “Sledgehammer,” “Big Time,” “That Voice Again” and “Red Rain”. Still, his coolest and best album is Peter Gabriel 3, aka “Melt”. It’s not as polished and for that particular set of songs, that’s a plus. The album has space to breathe. It pulses along with menace and ultimately, in album-closer “Biko,” catharsis.

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7. Nevermind – Nirvana

The perfect marriage between the energy of punk and Beatlesque pop hooks. This was Cobain’s musical ethos in a nutshell, polished to a perfect diamond. He would later grow self-conscious about the slick production work and rebel with the low-fi In Utero, but in reality Cobain’s songwriting and Nirvana’s raw power were never better showcased than on Nevermind. The album still plays like a greatest hits compilation (“Smells like Teen Spirit,” “In Bloom,” “Come as You Are,” “Breed,” “Lithium,” “Polly,” etc.), though its culture-shifting success would ultimately have very dark ramifications. Nirvana’s coolest album is Bleach and their best is Nevermind, non-punk production and all.

 

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8. Achtung Baby – U2

A Sgt. Pepper –sized reinvention by the world’s most popular band at the time. U2 hit a slump with critics and some fans with the overly-earnest Rattle and Hum project (following the mega-triumph of The Joshua Tree in 1987). Achtung Baby finds them on the verge of a breakup, with the tidal wave of grunge firmly approaching. The album sessions were turning into a Let it Be nightmare until Edge came up with the signature riff of “One,” which gave them the courage to soldier on. From album opener “Zoo Station” to funereal denouement “Love Is Blindness,” Achtung Baby soars along with great power and genuine risk-taking. They laid everything on the table and came up aces. Their coolest record is Boy, brimming with idealism, punk-influenced song structure, Edge’s echo-laden chime and Bono’s then pubescent-sounding voice. Their best is a toss-up between Achtung Baby and The Joshua Tree.

 

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9. The Eminem Show – Eminem

Following the post-grunge fallout of the music industry in the late ‘90s/early 2000s, where everything devolved to teen pop, Disney starlets and American Idol, pop-culture was devoid of the all-important lightening rod rebel figure. Out of this apathetic scene emerged a young white rapper so gifted with words and cursed with anger that the world couldn’t help but take notice. Like most everyone in rock and pop music, he benefitted greatly from cleverly appropriating an African-American art form. But he did so with reverence for the bedrock. I would put Eminem’s first three albums up against anything in the classic rock, pop, or R&B canon for sheer creativity. For me, his personal peak was The Eminem Show before substance abuse temporarily derailed his focus and talent (he would powerfully rebound with 2010’s Recovery). His coolest album is The Slim Shady LP. His best is The Eminem Show, though he will probably be most remembered for The Marshall Mathers LP.

 

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10. Rodrigo y Gabriela – Rodrigo y Gabriela

As someone weaned on rock guitar, I’ve also always loved nylon-string playing, whether it be classical, flamenco, etc. Rodrigo y Gabriela are the perfect synthesis of both styles, having started as metalheads in their native Mexico before evolving into a fierce, brilliantly synchronized nylon-string duo while busking in the streets of Ireland. Rodrigo y Gabriela captures them at an early peak, with fiery, passionate and sexy playing throughout (the male/female energy exchange is subtle, but powerful), as well as classic covers of Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Metallica’s “Orion”. The concept behind their brand was too ingenious not to work. Rodrigo y Gabriela is their coolest record as well. Their best is probably 11:11, though 9 Dead Alive is not too far behind.

 

Bonus Cuts:

Pretty Hate Machine – Nine Inch Nails: This looked to be the natural heir to grunge – hook-filled songwriting couched in Industrial music soundscapes and revitalized synth and drum programming.

What’s the Story (Morning Glory)? – Oasis: Shamelessly “borrowing” from the Beatles, Stones, the Who, etc., these cheeky Manchester brothers still had a genuine sibling swagger all their own. And it felt damn good to hear these familiar sounds again in the mid ‘90s.

Lonerism – Tame Impala: For someone constantly bemoaning the state of today’s music scene, discovering this album was a godsend, like coming back full-circle to something you love. Essentially a one-man band on record, Kevin Parker channels the psychedelic ‘60s, plays bass like McCartney and sings like Revolver-era Lennon, all while sounding fresh and relevant (e.g. “Elephant”). Catnip to these ears.

 

My thanks to Andy Pulliam for the initial inspiration for this piece.