The Obligatory Anissa-invoking prologue:
For all that it felt like the evening I bought Justus in a record store in Dundee (it was even gray and rainy), the circumstances couldn’t be more different. In 1996 I had scarcely thought about the Monkees in almost a decade. In 2016 they’ve been a constant in my life for the last 4 years, and in the last few months my Zilch duties have essentially sucked up all the time I didn’t give to my husband, my job, or my new website/podcast, Better Library Leaders. (Librarians, check it out! End plug). In 1996 I didn’t even know there was an album out—I found it by accident in the M bin while looking to replace the copy of Jagged Little Pill I’d left back in Oklahoma. In 2016, I (I guess I can reveal it now) was sitting in my home office with the drapes open, waiting to see if the UPS guy with my advance copy from John Hughes at Rhino would beat the garage door repairman to the house.
I held the package in the doorway for a moment, fighting the urge to rip it open right then. Instead, I went back to my office, opened the end of the package carefully and turned to the framed photo of the Frodis Femmes on my bookshelf. I grabbed the CD blindly, made sure it was facing the right way, and pulled it out facing away from me. It’s so dorky and stupid, but my old friend Anissa, the one who made me laugh for years, deserved to see this miraculous album cover before I did. And then I stared at the album myself for a long moment, feeling a distinct sense of “Anticidread”. The songs we’d heard were uniformly solid, but what if the rest were duds? Would it feel like a real group project? How would Love to Love represent Davy? I’d tried as hard as I could to only wish for an album that didn’t suck, but in my heart I knew I was hoping for one more miracle.
Ultimately, there was nothing else for it. I opened the case, removed the booklet and the CD, stuck it in my computer, and hit play. Here’s what I heard, and thought.
Much of this is redundant to my Zilch comments (you’re essentially reading a tidied version of my roundtable notes), but there are some things I didn’t get a chance to say.It’s also a bit rough, because it’s been a long week. Here goes.
Good Times: I can’t believe this was an incomplete track! Also, when we think of Harry Nillson Monkees tracks, we think of these sweet-tart creations that have a dark undertone to them. This one’s just flat-out unabashed fun! And I can’t tell you how great it felt to get a new track with Eddie Hoh on Drums! I just wish he’d been around to hear it. Love his work on it, somehow soulful and funky at the same time.
You Bring the Summer: I’m gonna tattle on Iain Lee here. Right around the time this album was announced, he sent me an IM. He’s friends with Andy Partridge, who apparently called him and played the demo of this song to him. He told me that he was in the middle of a shopping mall, listening to this song, and weeping like a little kid. Once I heard this tale, from a guy who makes me look like a casual fan, I knew we were gonna be ok on at least this one song. I particularly like the whole Brian Wilson good vibrations psychedelic changeup on the outro—Especially when Peter and Nez come in on the refrain. It’s like that moment in Milkshake off of Stranger Things have happened, but times ten. That trio was unlikely in the early 90s. by 2016 it seemed all but impossible. And yet, there it was.
She Makes Me Laugh: what stands out to me listening to the song in the context of the album is the Banjo bits on the verses. They’re subtle, but are just one of those touches that say “Hi! I’m a Monkees Song! I can include banjo non-ironically while still not sounding like Mumford and Sons!”
Our Own World: It was cool to have the chance to sit with these songs for about 4 days before reviewing them, because this one really grew on me with multiple listens, and the tune got stuck in my head for about 2 hours on Friday. I’d that isn’t a sign of a good song I don’t know what is. Looks like Peter and songwriter Adam Schlesinger contributed the keys on this one, and that’s really what this makes the song so catchy, beyond Micky’s performance, which is one of the best on a uniformly solid album. Also some of the best harmonies on the whole thing. Finally, I dig Adam’s guitar solo.
Gotta Give it Time: This is the second of the hybrid songs, started in 67 and finished now. Can I confess I’m not big on Jeff Barry as a general rule? I heard Iain say on his radio show or something that he thought Nez sounded bored on the backing on this one, I think that’s a little harsh, but something about this felt a bit filler. A fine album track elevated by an energetic performance from 2016 Micky, but not a highlight of the album for me.
Me and Magdalena: I’m not sure what I can say about this beautiful duet that hasn’t been said, except this—I think in some ways this is what Justus SHOULD have sounded like. And I defy you to listen to Nez’s solo verse at the end without getting misty eyed. It was the first of two times I wept listening to a song from this album for the first time. There were tears. At work. Streaming world café. Thank goodness I have a door.
Whatever’s Right: The Vintage Boyce and Hart track for this album, it’s very Boyce and Hart, mostly in a good way. However unlike Gotta Give it Time it was totally recorded in 2016—and it says something that I wouldn’t have been sure had I not read the liner notes. It’s got this cute 50s/early 60s semi-doowop vibe that would almost fit on the Grease soundtrack—or maybe as the flip side to That Thing You Do! (see what I did there?). And Bobby and Coco are a hoot on the background vocals! Another thing that hasn’t changed in 50 years is that Peter’s organ work is a highlight, ditto Mike Viola’s perfect guitar! He’s a gem and adds some great touches throughout the album. All that said, this is another one that feels a bit like album filler, maybe it’s the brevity. HOWEVER, even the “filler” on this album is still better than a good 90% of their post-Head output.
Love to Love: I’m a little afraid this will come out the wrong way given who sang lead and why the song was included, but I really expected them to do something more involved to this song. Not that I don’t like the new backing vocals, I do, but to my relatively poor ears it’s exactly identical to the missing links and music box versions aside from that. I’m also sad they couldn’t get Nez in the studio that day to be in that harmony mix. I had really expected this song to be the last time we heard all four Monkees sing together, and I’m a little sad it wasn’t. All that said, I do want to mention one thing about the CD booklet. Next to the lyrics of each song, there’s a little quote from somebody involved with the project. Peter got the pull quote for Love to Love, and it’s a poignant reminder of the bittersweet aspect of this album.
Little Girl: This is going to freak people out, but this is the song that made me think the most of Justus, specifically I Believe You. I’m not sure the lyrics work well for Peter in the same way I had some initial misgivings about She Makes me Laugh, but Brian Young’s funky drums are a big help, and Mike Viola contributes some nice backing vocals. But even though this was another one that doesn’t shine as brightly in the bigger picture of the album, it ALSO got stuck in my head at one point in the last few days. Ergo, it can’t be that bad. 🙂
Birth of an Accidental Hipster:
You got to understand, the Psychedelic stuff is my JAM. Daily Nightly was on the first episode I ever saw, and I think it hooked me as much as all the surreal stuff with Mike Nesmith as a dress. Porpoise Song, Mommy and Daddy, Randy Scouse Git, Shorty Blackwell, Writing Wrongs, Can you Dig It, Even the Instant replay You and I in some ways are what are MY Monkees. The different movements, the whole swirly psycho jello thing, this song is a love letter to that side of the Monkees. The second time I wept when listening to this album was the verse where Nez sings:
Old Friends say
Oh he’s lost his way
But they can’t see
What I can see
Oh, I’ll never come back
I’m heading out in the sunshine, baby!
I know Nez didn’t write the song, but it just seems to evoke so much of the Gazpacho era, at least to us Nezheads watching from afar. In any case, long-time readers of Fandom Lenses can see why I got the feels there, because that verse is as perfect a description of my journey in the past four years as anything could be. Ken thinks it’s a song about death, but I read it more as a song about REBIRTH, or rather a reconnection and re-integration with a part of you you’d let drift away. But again, that’s me reading my own positionality into the thing. However you slice it, it’s about transformation, and the music is the elixir that causes the transformation. It’s perhaps the most stereotypically 60s sounding song, yet also the one on the album that feels the most like it’s grounded in 2016.
Oh yeah. Mike Viola. Guitar. INCREDIBLE.
Wasn’t born to Follow: I am a proud Carole King Fangirl, so I was glad to see a Goffin/King tune represented. Peter’s right in the liner notes, this one does have a nice bit of Dylan in it. It’s another blend of 1968 instrumentals and 2016 vocals, and it was neat to see names in the liner notes that I’d learned more about from my chat with Jay McDowell a few months back, like Mike Deasy and Earl Palmer. This was a third example of a song that I thought didn’t work well for me, till I listened a few times and found myself randomly humming it. I don’t know that Peter could have done this one in 1968, but his 2016 voice suits it to a tee. It’s very Early Morning Blues and Greens in that way.
Also, does anyone else thing the melody sounds a tiny bit like a folk version of Macarthur Park? Or am I just weird?
A few moments after I finished playing this one to take notes, I heard Kevin whistling it in the next room, so there’s that too. Carole King is amazing.
I know what I know: The first thing I need to point out, is that this is a Michael Nesmith song in which there is exactly ONE WORD with more than two syllables. It’s an exercise in complexity via simplicity, and not just in the lyrics. I actually didn’t like it all that much in the version you can find on Videoranch, but Adam Schlesinger transformed it in a similar way to how Nez rethought Rays for Movies of the mind. All the synths are gone, and it’s just Nez in full-on Don’t call on me/Tropical Campfires crooner mode. No fancy words or fancy arrangements, just the man honestly honestly and earnestly singing a love song. Adam Schlesinger’s on all the instruments, most notably a gorgeous flowing Piano line and a captivating instrumental break on the Chamberlin.
I was there and I’m told I had a good time: They made us wait for it, but the final track on the standard album (and possibly the final song ever on a Monkees album) features drums by one Micky Dolenz. I’ve heard it compared to Randy Scouse Git by others who heard the album, but I think No Time’s the better analogy. Micky has a tendency to take quips and, um, run them into the ground, but in this track we discover that he has a nicely self-aware sense of humor about that habit! Also, the chatter in the back of the room was a cute touch, somewhat reminiscent of Don’t call on me, and I would love to know who was in that. Also, this appears to be the snippet of drumming that was posted on the Monkees’ facebook a while back, so it’s good to put a song to the video. Very tribal, loose, and fun. Adam Schlesinger’s Bass holds the track together in the grand Chip Douglas tradition, and Mike Viola provides a tasty, deliberately rough and ragged guitar line. And Micky’s line at the end was a gem. Overall, I’m not sure it’s a better last song by the Monkees than was It’s Not too Late (it’s certainly not as retroactively poignant), but that was gonna be a high bar to clear. And who knows? After hearing this I’m actually not totally convinced these guys are done yet.
When word of this album came out, we were excited but also, I think it’s safe to say many of us felt some, um, trepidation about this album. We all love the Monkees’ music in general, but their post-1968 output has been a little mixed (she says delicately). As a child in the 80s I owned Pool It, but I played it maybe a tenth as often as Pisces. Ten years later I loved Justus immediately just for the sheer fact it existed (the fact I didn’t know it was coming out till I bumped into it at a record store helped), but I liked the album a little less every time I played it. However, if the Monkees have taught us nothing else, they have taught us that the unexpected thing always happens. In a rational universe the 20th and 30th anniversaries should not have happened. The Threekees shouldn’t have had their best tour ever in 2011. DAVY JONES SHOULD NOT HAVE DIED ON LEAP DAY 2012. Nez shouldn’t have come back for a project, not once, and certainly not FOUR TIMES counting this album, with the promise of more concerts later this fall. And this album, this insane, hybrid thing that features songs from Boyce and Hart and Ben Gibbard sitting right next to each other, should not be the best album they have put out since Head, if not Pisces.
And yet, all these things are true. Even the worst songs are listenable and the best songs approach some of the peaks of the Headquarters and Pisces era. A lot of things get called miracles that shouldn’t be called miracles, but Good Times is damn close to a miracle. Go Buy It, folks.