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After 50 Years, The Monkees Remain In The Groove With Good Times!
The Monkees are, to me, the original American Idols.
Long before reality TV sought out young hopefuls and surrounded them with top music and musicians, a quartet of young men got their own recording contract and TV series and flourished with the attention. Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork stayed together for six albums, two seasons of shows, and a movie. Even after Tork left, the others did two more albums. When Nesmith went to his First National Band, Micky and Davy recorded one more album before the sale of Colgems Records to Bell (now Arista) forced them to stop using the name The Monkees. Eventually, they did regain the right to use the name, and a new generation discovered the Pre-Fab Four. When new Monkees material came in the 1980s, Tork rejoined. Nesmith sometimes joined his old mates on the concert stage, but it would take about a decade for them to work together as a quartet. That album would be their final album together before Jones died in 2012.
The survivors toured after that, and eventually returned to the studio for the 2016 Rhino Records release Good Times! The album mixes old and new, both in terms of tracks and songwriters. The old tracks have new mixes to them, and the new tracks are the best since their original run together. One of the old tracks is the title track, a Harry Nilsson demo from 1968 that has become a duet between the singer, who died in 1994, and Micky. It's a high energy number with a slight Latin flavoring that simply celebrates friendship and music. The very next track on Good Times! is You Bring The Summer, which XTC's Andy Partridge wrote for the Monkees. Micky again handles the lead vocals in a tune whose melody reminds me a bit of the XTC song Generals And Majors, though You Bring The Summer has a decidedly lighter tone. It's a tune that lets listeners know that summer can sometimes be a blissful state of mind.
Tork and Nesmith also get some lead vocal time on the album's acoustic tracks. Little Girl is a Tork composition that the author describes as a sequel to their old ballad I Wanna Be Free. Tork sings that he has learned there's more to life than freedom. Tork still values the title character as a welcome companion, and he's willing to share of himself if she wants him. He also does a nice job on a cover of Wasn't Born To Follow, a Gerry Goffin - Carole King song most closely associated with The Byrds. Tork sings with a longing to be his own man, and the knowledge that those who love him will understand. Nesmith adds his own acoustic touch on his composition I Know What I Know, a simple and introspective piece about a man and the appreciation he has for his partner. Nesmith also has the lead on one of my favorite Good Times! songs, Me & Magdalena. The song was written by Death Cab For Cutie's Ben Gibbard, and tells a poignant tale of physical and personal discovery on a road trip. Dolenz adds sweet harmony vocals that enhance the emotions associated with self-discovery.
Another one of the album's older tracks features Jones on lead vocals. Love To Love, written by Neil Diamond (also the author of the band's hits I'm A Beliver and A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You), first appeared in the US on Rhino's first Monkees release, Monkee Business, in 1982. It's a song about love where the attraction doesn't seem to be shared by both parties. Jones even tells listeners that the woman he loves is trying to break him, yet he doesn't break away. The song gets a slight update with harmony vocals from Dolenz and Tork. The song reminds listeners of the pop force the band became through their records, and shows a lesser known, but still solid, contribution from a man who has made a name for himself in pop music.
On their previous two albums, Pool It! and Justus, the Monkees tried too hard to connect with a younger generation of music fans. These albums, as a result, were underwhelming. For Good Times! the band enlisted Fountains Of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger as a producer. Schlesinger brings a keen pop sensibility to the proceedings, as well as a knowledge of the band from his memories as a boy and teen. He even brings his Fountains mates Jody Porter and Brian Young in for some songs as a part of the studio band. Schlesinger, who's also an experienced songwriter (other credits include songs for That Thing You Do!, Music And Lyrics, and TV Funhouse), contributes two happy dittes to Good Times!: Our Own World and I Was There (And I'm Told I Had A Good Time), the latter of which was co-written with Dolenz. Other musicians who wrote tracks for the album include Weezer's Rivers Cuomo (She Makes Me Laugh) and veteran British rockers Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller (Birth Of An Accidental Hipster).
The one thing I don't like about Good Times! is a problem I have had with many music releases over the years: a lack of inclusiveness. Most versions of Good Times! have thirteen tracks, but the FYE CD version of the album (which sold out quickly and forced me to pay more for it on eBay) had an additional track. The Japanese CD edition of Good Times! has a different additional track, and the vinyl version exclusive to Barnes & Noble has two addtional tracks (Thankfully, those are the CD bonus tracks). The Monkees website has two different digital downloads, but neither of the CD and LP's bonus tracks. I think Monkees fans should be able to get all seventeen tracks on any of these formats. Perhaps Rhino is preparing a Handmade release with all of the songs and studio sessions together, or at least a combination audio-visual packagem as they've recently done with both Pool It! and Justus. I like collecting music (especially the Monkees), but I hate chasing it like this, as these practices seem more cash-hungry than fan-friendly.
Good Times! marks the highest-charting album the Monkees have had in the US since The Birds, The Bees, & The Monkees in 1968. It's my favorite album from the band since Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones in 1967. Good Times! follows in the footsteps of the 2015 releases from sixties rock bands The Zombies (Still Got That Hunger) and The Sonics (This Is The Sonics!) in showing that these bands can still do more than live on the legacy of their old material. Considering that Micky, Mike, and Peter are now in their seventies (71, 73, and 74, respectively), Monkees fans may well be seeing the final studio effort from a band who has fans across the generations. In spite of Jann Wenner's objections, they deserve a spot in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame alongside inductees such as ABBA, Madonna, and NWA. The Monkees grew from a quartet surrounded by studio musicians to men who grew to gain control of their creative direction. Good Times! captures the essence of the band, and shows the Monkees were never really pre-fab. They simply have been fab for a long time.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Good Times! 3.5 stars. Still good at 50.