I’d like to propose a slightly crazy lens through which to view this album. Yeah, it all seems pretty upbeat and jingle bells-ish at first listen. However, as I sat with this album, as usual, I realized the still waters of this little cheerfully wrapped present ran deceptively deep in more than a few spots. SO here’s my overthought and very subjective theory. All the songs here can be understood to lie on a continuum. On the right end are the tunes that are mainly about Christmas, in the friendship and family and Micky and Davy sliding down Melvin Vandersnoot’s chimney with care sense of Christmas. However, this album also contains more than a few tunes that, whether or not they use the word “Christmas” in the lyrics, more heavily invoke the themes of a much older (and darker) version of the winter solstice holiday, by design, circumstance, or a combination of the two.
Winter Solstice has gone by a lot of names (Yule’s probably the one you’ve heard most often, but it’s honored in some form by just about every culture on the planet). There are varying practices (many of which have been absorbed into our contemporary Christmas traditions), but one of the common themes is a mourning of the death of the old year/king/sun and a kindling of hope sparked by the rebirth or renewal of the new year/king/sun. Very much a cyclical, melancholy, but also hopeful exploration of the mysteries of the waxing and waning of life. This darker take on the holiday in contemporary pop culture certainly isn’t a new innovation. One can find playlists full of darker/sadder holiday ditties that emphasize the dying of the old year or old loves over the sparkling tinsel possibilities of the new season about to dawn on the horizon. Compare, Say, Winter Wonderland to the original lyrics of Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas.
To be clear, I don’t think this “Christmas/solstice” tension that I sensed was completely a deliberate artistic choice by anyone involved. Even for a band whose lyrics once name-checked Plato’s cave allegory, who released a movie that anticipated post-structuralism, and who return again and again in their work to meditations on their artistic journey as a cyclical spiral of decline and rebirth rather than a linear progression through time, that’s pushing it. However, circumstances have brought a decidedly melancholy undertone to the still-upbeat vibe of the Monkees’ community over the second half of 2018.
To be blunt, between a quadruple bypass, Micky’s cryptic comments in a pre-release interview, and Peter’s request for privacy the day before the album dropped, it’s getting harder and harder to pretend that The Monkees are still those eternally young men we can cue up at the press of a button, or even the older but still vibrant men of recent years who could help us beat the darkness back a little while longer by leading us all in one more chorus of Daydream Believer. I sense a similar vibe from this album, which combines the joyous celebratory tone of Good Times while dialing up the tinges of melancholy that shaded moments like Me and Magdelena. And if the tension between cheer and wistfulness in the album was intentional, then kudos to the artistic team involved for providing a surprisingly vulnerable exploration of the joy and sadness of a group that (especially since 2012) simultaneously embodies a seemingly immortal sense of joy and creative possibility while also honestly grappling with their own singular and collective complexity, flaws, and mortality. Kind of like the complex stew of emotions that often arise for people around the winter holidays, come to think of it.
At a glance the cover of the Monkees Christmas party contains the jumble of cheerful symbolism and deep-cut easter eggs one saw in Good Times. Finger puppet aside (I know some of you love it but I think the thing is fucking creepy), that album cover depicts what would have been my fantasy Christmas morning in 1987 or 1988. But wait–what’s that in the bottom? The Monkees in their outfits from Head, running away from the mob and toward the bridge and their “deaths”. Seems a kind of weird image to invoke next to all the tinsel and neon and lunch boxes.
Or maybe, if one takes more of a Solstice angle on this album, it’s not that weird a choice at all.
(I’m just gonna leave this right here.)
(This one too.)
If you want to learn more I’ve linked some of the most interesting resources at the end of this post, but since this is an album review, not a comparative religion article, I’m gonna rope in my inner didact and get to the damn music. I took the liberty of embedding the spotify playlist so you can listen while you read. (kind of like The Prison! Except totally unlike The Prison!)
Unwrap you at Christmas
The lead-off song and first single from the album is a cheerful, slightly nudge-nudge-wink-wink pop ditty that has a nice Phil Spector Wall of Sound thing while still being Blatantly Andy Partridge. On my totally subjective and utterly unscientific “Solstice to Christmas” spectrum, this one’s so Christmas I envision Micky as a shopping mall Santa guzzling a Coke in a glass bottle while flirting with the cute Mrs. Claus handling crowd control in the line. This is also the first time we hear the musicians who do the bulk of the heavy lifting on the Micky-led tunes: Michael Eisenstein on guitar, Producer Adam Schlesinger on guitar, bass, and keyboards, Brian Young on Drums/Percussion, and David Mead on background vocals—in this case joined by a small string section to fill out the sound.
What would Santa Do?
I’ll still let this one rest on the Christmas side of the spectrum, though that second verse twist definitely sends it closer to the middle. Both WWSD songwriter Rivers Cuomo and Andy Partridge were represented on Good times, but intriguingly WWSD reminds me slightly more of You Bring the Summer, and Unwrap you at Christmas puts me more in mind of She Makes me Laugh. Weird.
Y’all are sitting down, right? Because I think this remix of a tune from a Davy Jones holiday album from the early 90s is one of the highlights of the Christmas-leaning tracks on the album. Some with better ears than I have grumbled about the recording quality of Davy’s vocal track, but it sounds good enough to me. And the steel guitar on here was great. I had to look at the album booklet before I was 100% convinced it wasn’t Pete Finney. The only thing that keeps it from being on the far Christmas end of my spectrum is a sense of regret that his talents weren’t as respected in their time as they should have been (even by a lot of us Monkees fans, frankly), and that he wasn’t here to contribute in person to an album that was even more up his artistic alley than Good Times. On a personal note, Kevin and I honeymooned at Walt Disney World a few weeks before Christmas 2001, and I distinctly remember lounging by the pool at the Polynesian resort one afternoon with Mele Kalikimaka (albeit not Davy’s version) playing on the speaker system. This one brought back some nice memories. 😊
House of Broken Gingerbread
OK, if you’ve been paying attention (or simply read the archives of this blog), the last 6 years have contained most of the weirdest moments of my life as a Monkees fan. However, listening to a captivating Monkees Christmas song about a child of divorce with lyrics by Michael Chabon? Yeah, that still probably makes the top 10 WTFs list. Though really I should say Solstice Song here, if just barely over the line. Happily married though my parents were (and remain to this day), I can think of a particular Christmas in Virginia the year I was 9 or so when I would have been listening to this non-stop if it had been written yet instead of Shades of Grey.
The Christmas Song
In a more “tinsel and neon” world (or hell, even if this album had just come out for Christmas 2017 instead), this would be smack in the middle of the “Christmas” side of the spectrum. I’d be gushing about Nez in his “don’t call on me”/ ”I know what I know” crooner mode, and talking about how the Cowboy Christmas vibe put me in the mind of the year after the rather depressing Christmas alluded to above, when we were back home in Oklahoma and I found A Manufactured Image and half the Monkees’ vinyl under the Christmas tree. But as a wise man once remarked when he added the third and final signature on my Listen to the Band box set, “I guess that’s how it goes sometimes.”
A wobble or two aside, the technical side of Nez’s performance is so solid it makes it hard to believe his vocal was recorded all of two months after his surgery. But the emotional quality of his delivery reminds the listener, almost against their will, of the gentle, inexorable turning of life’s wheel. And it brought this listener to tears.
Oh, and Christian’s arrangement of this one was impeccable. Any chance of an FNB or a Nez/Circe holiday album? Not kidding here. 😊
After two of the more bittersweet tracks on the album, Adam Schlesinger wisely takes us to the title song, a raucous sweet-tart ditty that one might get if one put REM and Harry Nillson in a blender. Unsurprising, as this was Peter Buck’s & Scott McCaughey’s contribution (Both of whom play on this track). Definitely a Christmas song, but if I were using Saturnalia as the other side of the spectrum it wouldn’t be. 😉 Oh, and the Christmas episode party sample and the references to Auntie Grizelda and such were cute, and a nice reminder that REM proudly claimed the Monkees as one of their musical inspirations.
Confession–I’d never heard this song before I looked it up when I heard it was being covered for this. I prefer the original (don’t hit), though that’s not a knock on Micky’s cover.
I can’t help but wonder how it would have sounded if, say, Peter could have done it instead of Micky. But unfortunately…that wasn’t to be. But Dammit, I can’t put a song called “Jesus Christ” on the “Winter Solstice” side of the spectrum! It’s about, you know, Christmas! And not in the Santa Claus sense!
Hmm. Guess I’ll have to put it right under the center divider. That’ll work.
I Wish it could be Christmas Every Day
Phew! A song that was as much of a holly-jolly no-brainer to rank as Unwrap you at Christmas, Micky and his musicians manage to be sweet but not cloying. This is another cover I had been unfamiliar with, but in this case I give Micky’s version the win. I’ve provided a link below so you can make up your own minds.
I know why they didn’t, or rather, I know why they probably couldn’t. But short of re-recording Riu Chiu with 2018 vocals, wouldn’t this have been the best one for all of them to provide backing vocals to Davy? I know, I know. I need to let that wish go, and just praise Adam Schlesinger’s excellent rearrangement that brought this song out of the 90s, as well as Daphne Chen and company’s work on strings.
But the wish I can’t get out of my heart pushes this song over to the Solstice side, if not by much. I’ve never claimed to be rational or objective on this blog, and this review would be a pretty horrible time to start trying.
It was a close call when I decreed Micky’s cover of Good Morning Good Morning excellent but not up to the standard of the original, and if I were to write that review again today I’m not sure I’d come to the same conclusion. This one’s not as close a call—I’m one of those weirdos who likes the original version of this song, and while I like this version a lot (and think Micky should maybe do an album of McCartney covers one of these days), it’s not quite at the level of the original, as much as I like Adam’s arrangement. And yet…I pulled the lyrics for this review’s title from this song. Don’t you love a good paradox? 😉
As for my spectrum, this is a solid middle of the pack Christmas song, as Paul intended it to be, with perhaps just the slightest dash of melancholy in the lyric for flavor.
Welp, I guess I need to get more familiar with Jonathan Nesmith’s catalog, because this otherworldly Cosmic Country arrangement is gorgeous. I read somewhere that this is apparently one of Nez’s favorite “Christmas” songs (tho I’m ranking it on the solstice side for lyrics, arrangement, and matters discussed re: “The Christmas Song”). I can see why he likes it.
Angels we Have Heard on High
Before sharing my thoughts on this song, I’m slipping off my Fandom Lenses hat and putting on my Zilch Cohost Hat for a moment. I need to make something crystal clear, because if I don’t, some of you are going to read between lines, see things that aren’t there and potentially jump to wild conclusions given all the rumors burbling around this week. Yes, as Zilch admins we communicate with the PTFB team, among others, as The Monkees’ solo and group promotional needs require. It’s a compliment and a level of trust from members of the inner circle that we do not take lightly. I’ll even go further—VERY occasionally we know a detail or two about something or other a day or two before it’s announced to the general public, but this is almost always minor shit. For the record, we learned about the holiday album essentially when everyone else did (and unlike Good Times we didn’t get advance copies to review). Ditto Nez’s heart surgery. Ditto Micky’s vague allusion to Peter’s health, and Peter’s announcement the day before the album dropped. When it comes to the Big Topics on folks’ minds right now aside from this album, we know what you know. No more.
And more specifically on the topic of Peter’s health, I don’t want to know any more than that what was said, because bad news on that front would probably rock me more severely than Nez’s open heart surgery did, and y’all read and heard how shook I was by THAT. Suffice it to say I’m not at all sure I’d be running a library or living in Philadelphia if the events of 2012-2016 hadn’t happened as they did, and one of the first and most important links in the chain of causality that made me who I am today was a short, simple, kind facebook post the day after a friend died. That’s the reason for all my melancholy Solstice Feels around one of the most overtly christmas-ey songs on the album, not some tidbit of top-secret insidery knowledge.
End disclaimer. Back to the review.
I’ve always kind of wished to see a James Lee Stanley credit on a Monkees song, and now he has one, for co-arranging and co-producing. And what a song it is. Yes, the autotune or processing or whatever on Peter’s vocal is, um, noticeable. As is a fragility in his voice that wasn’t there the last time I heard him live, the night he did his best Gene Simmons right in front of Ken. If that night in St. Louis was the last time I get to see him live and in person, what a way to go out. Peter’s banjo is as solid as ever, and it carries the song to another level. And as always, the heart behind Peter’s voice shines through the processing and the changes age may have brought.
Long story short, when I heard this song for the first time, I wept.
I wept with a previously somewhat repressed sadness that the Monkees’ individual and group stories are closer to the end than the beginning.
I wept with gratitude for the journey of my life thus far, a surprising proportion of which has been informed by the lessons of four men’s lives and art in ways both mundane and profound.
But by the end of Peter’s song I smiled in the knowledge that even if Peter, Nez, or Micky aren’t still here when I make the next major turn in my own spiral, the lessons I’ve learned from them and their work will always be a part of me.
Thanks to all of you for not quitting before the miracle.
Merry Christmas Baby
Mercifully, and appropriately, Micky and Adam end the album on an upbeat, Christmas-ey note, with Merry Christmas Baby, an exquisite interpretation of bluesy holiday standard that allowed Micky to really cut loose. Yet another reason I wish this album could have happened a year sooner—wouldn’t this have been a great duet with Peter? Ah well, David Mead, for all the comments I’ve made lamenting that it had to be you providing all the backing vocals on Micky’s stuff, you did a great job, and really took a lot of these tracks to another level. We Monkees fans are just a little greedy, you know?
Christmas Party, as a whole, rests somewhere in the middle of the pack for me—it’s not a top 5-er like Good Times, but it sure as hell isn’t Changes or Pool It either. It’s a better album than it needed to be, and in some senses it’s a better album than one would think it could be, given both the genre and the obstacles that had to be overcome to make it a reality. At least half the tracks on this album are going to be on my holiday playlist this year and not (just) because I’m a fan. Now, for me the high points aren’t *quite* as high as the best moments of Good Times (While excellent, house of Broken Gingerbread is no Hipster). That said, every track is solid. In addition, as good as Micky’s performances were on this album, I think I prefer Mike, Peter’s and Davy’s (!) contributions to the album when taken as a whole–what some of the vocal performances lack in technical perfection they more than make up for in Feels. Which brings me to my biggest takeaway from this album, the one that I’ve been sort of edging toward with this whole Christmas/Winter Solstice lens. Would Angels we have Heard on High have hit me so hard had we not gotten Peter’s message the day before the album dropped? Would Christmas Song have floored me the way it did if Nez hadn’t had a quadruple bypass 2 months before he recorded the thing? Those answers are unknown and unknowable. However, both Peter’s and Nez’s contributions seemed colored by post-2016 events and had a tone that was, not valedictory, nor nostalgic exactly either–wistful? Bittersweet? I’m not sure, still looking for the word. These aren’t emotions one generally thinks of in connection with Monkees music, but they work in the context of the work as a Christmas album. At least a Christmas album released now, in the closing months of 2018.
So now, I look forward. With no little trepidation, I’m going to tempt fate and say specifically that I am looking forward to seeing M&M at the Keswick in March. I hope Nez makes some sort of joke apologizing for being late. I hope that Peter returns to performing, even if I watch his next show over Concert Window or Facebook Live. I hope that Micky takes that idea for a McCartney covers album. I am a fan of the Monkees, both collectively and individually. And because of that, whenever I stand in the face of darkness, I will always hope for a new sunrise, even it’s tinged with a few shades of grey.
And on that note I’ll let these 4 gentlemen close us out. If I decide to add an addendum when the Target expanded edition drops, I’ll add it below this video.
More about Winter Solstice celebrations: