Friday, June 10, 2016

Album Review: Good Times by The Monkees

It's been almost 50 years since The Monkees was released, and 20 years since The Monkees most recent album, Justus was released. They've overcome Don Kirshner, seen Peter Tork leave the group, seen Michael Nesmith leave the group, completely disbanded, reunited (minus Nesmith), reunited with Nesmith, reunited without Nesmith, faced the passing of the great David Jones, and regrouped as Micky Dolenz, Tork, and Nesmith. Good Times serves as not only an anniversary celebration, but an attempt to bring back the "good times" feel of the group. 

Good Times has already received mostly positive reviews, and apart from reviewing it myself, I'd like to discuss for a moment what sets Good Times apart from their other post-1970 projects. 

Pool It!, released in 1987 featured Dolenz, Jones, and Tork. The Monkees had been seeing a massive popularity spike since their shows started rerunning on MTV, and a new generation of young fans had been created. However, while Pool It! is not entirely without merit, the album failed chart significantly, despite, as I mentioned, a pretty big fanbase considering they'd originally been popular twenty years prior. The songs on the album were neither written by the band, nor by the famed songwriters they'd worked with in the sixties (with a couple of exceptions). The backing was once again done by studio musicians, and for some reason, they chose to use an album cover that completely ignored what twenty years of aging had done to them. That said, the studio musicians and producer Roger Bechirian did a great job of making the album sound current. It's just that much of the charm the group had originally cultivated was missing. The musical integrity they'd fought so hard for was also out for the day, and this combination of factors really didn't make the album a great success. 

Flashing forward nine years to Justus, we see all four men reunited. As a condition of working on the project, Nesmith made sure The Monkees once again wrote and performed their own material. He also took over the majority of the production responsibility. Early work on the album was said to include tunes penned by various other writers, although it's still tough to know if those writers would have done any better or much worse than what the boys managed. As I've said in reviews before, it's tough to hold a reunion album or an album by an older artist to the same standards as you would a new "hip" band. With or without that information though, Justus did not turn out as a terrible album. What it lacks is the fun they seemed to be having on Headquarters, and the upbeat, yet often poignant songs of the sixties work they did. The album is very much a rock album, which is forgetful of the fact that the band's bread and butter was being a pop group, and what made their records special in the original era was the fact that many genres peeped their head in. Justus also suffered from strange and terrible promotion. The TV special designed to go along with it was released months later, and aired just once, never to be released on VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray. 

The point I'm taking forever to get to here is that Good Times is basically the third attempt to make a post-1970 album good and to make it work commercially. I got excited for the project immediately, and not just because it's The Monkees. Big names whose songwriting I've been a fan of for years started to get attached immediately, and that really made me much more enthusiastic for what was to come.

Good Times begins on a high note (figuratively), with the title track, "Good Times." Harry Nilsson recorded a very short version of this song during the two years he spent on the Tower Records label (available on Spotlight on Nilsson), and had been working on a version with Nesmith in 1968, which got shelved. Dolenz picked the session tape up for Good Times, and sings a duet with the late, great Nilsson, a good friend of Dolenz. The resulting track sounds as vintage as one might expect, but with a few modern touches courtesy of producer Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne).

Longtime Monkees fan and untraditional melodist Andy Partridge (XTC) provides the sunshine-pop tune "You Bring the Summer." "You Bring the Summer" brings to mind "Sunny Girlfriend" conceptually, as well as any 60s beach tune in terms of overall feel. All three living Monkees perform on it vocally, with Nesmith on guitar and Tork on organ.

Meanwhile, Weezer's Rivers Cuomo penned another summer anthem with "She Makes Me Laugh." Cuomo must have been channeling a lot of 60s sound, because you can hear it in Weezer's White Album (released in April) as well. I only bring this up because I could imagine Dolenz (or even the late Jones) singing the Weezer track "(Girl We Got a) Good Thing." All that said, "She Makes Me Laugh" comes out fantastically and also features contributions by the other two remaining Monkees.

By the time producer Adam Schlesinger's track "Our Own World" rears its head, it has become clear that the album definitely has a theme of sunny days running through it. Although "Our Own World" didn't receive as much press as some of the tracks with other names attached, it's really a great track for the group as well. If I have one complaint about it, it's that Schlesinger slipped a little more into his Fountains of Wayne roots for the production of this song than for the rest of the album.

Bringing in another of the composers that worked so closely with the band in the 60s, the group finished work on "Gotta Give it Time," a Jeff Barry and Joey Levine piece with elements that were recorded in 1967 (I'm thinking the backing track by the Wrecking Crew). The backing gives it an authentic vintage feel, but with it being less catchy than most other tracks on the album, one might be able to guess why it wasn't used before (or it may have been because of Headquarters, I'm not speaking in absolutes).

One of the most relaxed tracks on the record, and by far the most popular track has to be "Me and Magdalena." Written by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie, "Me and Magdalena" is totally congruent with Gibbard's work (particularly on Former Lives and the soundtrack to Arthur), while still being a perfect fit for Nesmith to sing. Gibbard is another longtime Monkees fan, and has been known to perform "Cuddly Toy" and "Look Out, Here Comes Tomorrow" in concerts. Nesmith vocalises the song with the sincerity he would give one of his own tracks while displaying a well-preserved voice.

A Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart tune "Whatever's Right" has an authentically retro vibe. Boyce and Hart originally recorded a version of "Whatever's Right" as the final track for The Monkees, but lead vocals were never added, and the song appears for the first time on a Monkees album here. Dolenz' sister Coco Dolenz and Bobby Hart both contribute backing vocals to the final 2016 recording.

One of the first obstacles that had to be overcome for Good Times was the fact that David Jones is no longer with us. There has never been a Monkees album without Jones and Dolenz, despite the varying degrees of Tork and Nesmith throughout history. Inclusion of Jones was achieved by digging up a semi-rare "Love To Love," formerly featured only on rarities albums or as a bonus track. Dolenz and Tork added new backing vocals and Schlesinger polished it up a bit. While I've been hearing "Love To Love" for years, I'm glad it was given a new feel for the new album.

Tork brings "Little Girl" to the table. Tork says he originally wrote the song with Jones in mind, as a follow-up to "I Wanna Be Free." Jones had wanted to sing it, but as fate would have it, never got the chance. The charming and sincere tune is a perfect fit for the album, and a great piece of work by Tork.

Paul Weller (The Jam) and Noel Gallagher (Oasis) collaborated on "Birth of an Accidental Hipster," a dreamy track that blends the voices of Nesmith and Dolenz together for a sound that could have been found on the Head soundtrack. Once again, Coco Dolenz contributes vocals, and Schlesinger provides impeccable production.

On "Wasn't Born to Follow," Tork again shows off an excellent voice as he leads a Gerry Goffin and Carole King tune. Much of the backing track was recorded in 1968, which can definitely be heard in the harpsichord, but modern touches have been placed on it.

The minimalistic "I Know What I Know" serves as the only Nesmith-penned track. His cryptic blurb in the liner notes could be taken to mean that he sees this song as something of a reunion song, or at the very least, that he dedicates this song to the reunion. Either way, the slow-paced song is moving, and a great song to be placed near the end of the album.

"I Was There (And I'm Told I Had a Good Time)" closes Good Times. Written by Schlesinger and Dolenz, the song title is a nod to a comment Dolenz frequently makes about his partying days of the late 60s and 70s. The track begins with something of a "Sgt. Pepper" sound. As hokey as the track could have been with the premise the title presented, it turned out very nicely. "I Was There" serves as a fantastic closer, as well as being the only track on which Dolenz performs drums.

Overall, Good Times provides a clean, sunshine pop sound. It's consistent in substance, without losing the variety in style that the original albums had. The decisions made for the album by Andrew Sandoval are near-perfect. They hit a great ratio of classic-era composers, modern composers who have drawn inspiration from the group, and songs written by the three living Monkees. The art direction of the album is a massive improvement over the last two as well, featuring illustrations reminiscent of Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, but with a very modern-looking cover nonetheless. My primary complaints with the album involve the high-concentration of songs on which Dolenz sings lead at the front of the album, and the scarcity of Nesmith songwriting and vocalisation on the album, the latter of which can easily be excused by the careful choice of a variety of songwriters chosen for the album, which I think keep each track new and exciting.

I personally, wouldn't be displeased if this were the final Monkees album, so that they might celebrate their 50th anniversary, but end their production of new music on a high-note. That said, getting another Gibbard composition, or something by Sam Means or Elvis Costello wouldn't hurt my feelings either.

I have this theory that certain albums are best listened to in particular seasons. Good Times was released at the perfect time, because it is a summer album if ever I heard one. It might not be a perfect record, but it's definitely the best since The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees. Totally worth a listen.

The Monkees in their heyday.

Good Times can be purchased here.

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