Traveling Monkberries: Rhino’s Barrel of New & Old

the monkees, rhino records
Rhino Records drops some new Monkees music on us as we wait for the release of their spruced up TV series BluRay Box Set. All 58 episodes of snarky lunacy that melded the Marx Brothers with pop culture of 1960’s West Coast America will appear in the midst of innumerable bonus features. Those extras include the group’s only feature film Head as well as the even more challenging final television special 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee. The mega-set can be ordered at the Monkees’ official website only, and is limited to 10,000 copies world wide.

Daze of Future Passed…
In the meantime, the new album is a fun concept aptly called Good Times! It mixes overlooked vault tracks from the group’s heyday with tunes created by contemporary songwriters. Monkees albums were always a conglomeration of songs written to order (usually by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart,) or pitched by Brill Building era publishers, or in some cases foisted upon the band based on who was in charge at the moment. For the most part musical input from the four young men who represented the public face of the “project” was neither required or desired. It effectively rendered them cyphers in their own group. That discontinuity ultimately led to mutiny, and their third album featured their own work with a producer of their choice, bassist Chip Douglas. Though former honchos (i.e. Don Kirschner) predicted doom, that post-revolt album (Headquarters) spent weeks at the top of the charts. It was trumped for number one position only by The BeatlesSgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.

That Thing He Does…
For Good Times! Fountain’s of Wayne’s bassist Adam Schlesinger was enlisted by Rhino Records to produce. He seems a bull-eye choice to guide this new album. His own band created what is arguably the best post Monkees pop album, 1999’s Utopia Parkway. He was also tapped for soundtrack work on Tom Hanks’ 60’s music homage film That Thing You Do, and knows his way around a catchy jingle.

Me and Mr. Jones…
The title song kicks off the set on a rocking up note and includes the first of the album’s two posthumous performances. Songwriter Harry Nilsson’s guide vocal gives Micky Dolenz an opportunity to duet with his old imbibing buddy. The song has the feel of Michael Nesmith’s 1967 stage tour de forceYou Can’t Tell A Book By It’s Cover,” which ultimately morphed into the rave-up “Circle Sky.” The other ghost in the machine is from the late Davy Jones. His vocals appear on the Neil Diamond penned “Love to Love,” an outtake from the Headquarters sessions. The song cribbed “I’m A Believer’s” organ sound fishing for a follow-up hit. It has been included in other Monkees packages but is a nice homage and quite appropriate of the group to ensure that David would be represented on this album.
the monkees, rhino records
Sensei’s Working Overtime…
Rhino’s choices for modern collaborators are extremely successful across the project. Each seems aware of the scope of the task without sublimating their own style.

XTC fans will instantly feel at home with the cheery bounce of Andy Partridge’s contribution. “You Bring the Summer” has a lyric about a sunny girlfriend who can melt away even the most inclement weather for Dolenz to sing in counterpoint to a nicely crafted guitar riff. It’s change up coda evokes the Beach Boys as much as the Monkees. It made me think that High LlamasSean O’Hagan would have been a good choice for song contributor on this project as well.

She Makes Me Laugh” has an instantly singable chorus with a nice unexpected minor chord change at the end. It features a descending 12 String guitar run that could have been lifted from “Hard Days Night” era Fabs. This tune comes from Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo. If there was still such a thing as radio, this would be a radio hit.

One of the album’s highlights is “Me and Magdalena.” Mike and Mickey share the vocals on this song written by Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. Their casual intertwining harmonies add a melancholy mist to the introspective, driving down the California coast at sunset, lyrics. This one is a true gem, and could stand proudly next to one of my Monkee favorites, Head‘s “As We Go Along.” The song gets a more fleshed out treatment in an equally excellent second version that is offered as a bonus track on the iTunes Deluxe download. It’s the one song most likely to go on my infinite “repeat one” list. Another deluxe only track, “Terrifying,” penned by is also quite lovely and should have made the album proper.

There is no uber riff song on the record. Nothing in the scope of “Last Train To Clarksville” to grab you by the throat. The closest we get is a “Dirty Water” analog called “Gotta Give It Time.” Penned by Jeff Barry and Joey Levine back in the day, it gives Micky another opportunity to crank his delicious rasp. Andy M. and I had the pleasure of reporting on his solo show at B. B. King’s Restaurant and Grill a season ago and he can still belt out the good stuff.

It’s almost no surprise that, though clocking in at a meager 2 minutes flat, one of the most Monkee-esque songs here is Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart’s “Whatever’s Right.” It was their understanding of how to dismantle the chart hogging hits of British Invasion bands and reassemble them as quintessential American rock that fueled The Monkees’ first album. This one rocks me straight back to the kids frugging on the beach during episodes of Dick Clark’s Where the Action Is.

Peter Tork stays true to his folk roots. On banjo and vocal he turns in a lovely reading of Gerry Goffin & Carole King’s “Wasn’t Born To Follow.” Ensconced on the soundtrack of Easy Rider the song became a counter culture anthem, here it reveals that the songwriters may have been influenced by the meter of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” as much as by Dylan. “Little Girl” is a Tork original which he has noted was first pitched as a follow-up to “I Wanna be Free” for Davy Jones to sing. It could have easily proved another swoon worthy performance for the young British Monkee.

Michael Nesmith’s original song, “I Know What I Know,” is a piano based ballad with a restrained string arrangement. It has the elegance and earnestness of love songs written in the 1930’s-40’s for the stage. It would not have been out of place in the repertoire of a singer like Mel Torme, and might even make a good choice for the catalog of a latter-day crooner like Michael Bublé.

A Tab in the Ocean…
Another favorite of mine is “Birth of an Accidental Hipster.” It offers a mix of phased psychedelia and feelin’ groovy British music hall. It’s a collaboration between born-too-late sixties music savants Paul Weller and Liam Gallagher. The song could just as easily sit in a playlist next to anything on The Dukes of Stratosphear’s (secretly XTC) 25 O’Clock album, The Who’s “Armenia, City In the Sky,” The Pretty ThingsS. F. Sorrow, or The Monkees’ own “Porpoise Song.” That’s right where I’m gonna put it once this review is posted.

the monkees, rhino records
All 58 Monkees TV episodes refurbed on BluRay are coming from Rhino Records.

I’ve Got Blisters On My Fingers…
I Was There (and I’m Told I had A Good Time)” ends the album by conjuring the spectre of the LA “lost weekenders,” a rat pack that consisted of John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon, Alice Cooper, Ringo Starr and yep Micky Dolenz. Their short reign of terror on the Hollywood bar scene is legendary and the legend, which includes Tampax as head wear, has been printed many times. Schlesinger elbows us with the classic Lennon/Elvis slap-back vocal echo to drive home the connection. Here we finally get a nice chunky shuffle with rockabilly tinged guitar fills that would certainly have fueled old Winston O’Boogie’s lorry.

SkeletonPete Says…
“Me and Magdelena’s” lyric suggests “everything lost can be recovered,” and Good Times! goes a long way to prove that true. It finally gives Monkees fans a worthy sibling to the classic albums. Overall Adam Schelsinger should be commended for creating such a cohesive experience from a disparate batch of pieces.

That said, Schlesinger’s method to heavily filter the sound through Fountains of Wayne sensibility, with mostly FOW players, is at points problematic. What emerges is similar to Jeff Lynne’s Traveling Wilburys and George Harrison productions which all have a patina of the Electric Light Orchestra. While I am a huge FOW fan, I find this to be the record’s sole stumbling block. A healthy portion of it feels like a Fountains of Wayne created Byrds tribute album with Monkees members as vocalists. The thing is Monkees’ LP’s were way tougher sounding, and the Wrecking Crew studio players were always a blank slate to work with. No one can hear “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and think Carole King rather than The Monkees.

Knowing Rhino, there are probably several additional tracks and alternate mixes available for a future super-mega-deluxe-limited-edition boxed set release. Personally I would love to hear the original demos offered to the group as part of an expanded package. Hey, Hey, guys do another one of these soon.

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