Saturday, May 21, 2016

Michael Nesmith’s Guitar Playing on The Monkees Album Justus

If anyone thinks that The Monkees have no musical abilities beyond being pretty faces and pretty voices, their 1996 reunion album Justus should put those doubts to rest.

The record is their first written, produced, and performed entirely by themselves, and they function as an extremely tight unit. All four of them do a great job on their instruments – Micky Dolenz on drums, Davy Jones on percussion, Peter Tork on bass and keyboards, and Michael Nesmith on guitars.

The real revelation here is Nesmith, who, aside from playing acoustic rhythm guitar as a solo singer-songwriter and leaving the fancy stuff to his backing bands, has dabbled over the years as an electric guitarist.

But here, in addition to playing acoustic rhythm guitar, Nesmith totally lets loose with rip-roaring electric guitar leads, riffs, and solos, proving himself adept in a variety of styles from pop and rock to progressive and new wave.

Listening to Nesmith grind his axe on Justus makes me wish that he had done more guitar-based instrumentals on his own albums, or even entire guitar-based instrumental albums, especially since as a vocalist he’s more prone to generally laid-back, country-style crooning (although he can really belt out some tunes when he wants to).

Heck, Nesmith still has time to record at least one guitar-based instrumental album if he so desires, as he is still very agile and active at this stage of his life.

But Justus will have to do for now – as it has for the last 20 years – as the one definitive showcase of what Nesmith is really capable of as a six- (and more)-string shredder.

Plus, Justus is a very good Monkees album.

--Raj Manoharan

CD Retro (Fan) Review – Justus, by The Monkees

Justus, an original studio album that was released during The Monkees’ 30th anniversary in 1996, is the first album to feature The Monkees writing, producing, and performing all the songs entirely by themselves, and the last album to feature all four Monkees.

The Monkees have always been famously maligned for not writing their own songs and playing their own instruments on the majority of their hit recordings in the 1960s. Still, The Monkees at one point outsold both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined, proving that music lovers and buyers connect above all else with the songs themselves and the singers who sing them.

On Justus, The Monkees prove that in addition to being fine singers, they are also excellent musicians. In fact, they’re so good that it’s easy to forget that they’re playing the instruments in addition to singing. Micky Dolenz plays drums, Davy Jones plays percussion, Peter Tork plays bass and keyboards, and Michael Nesmith (the predominant holdout from various Monkees reunions throughout the years, and the one who looks the least like his former self) plays guitars.

My favorite songs on the album are Nesmith’s progressive, rollicking redo of his Monkees tune “Circle Sky,” the Nesmith-penned rant rocker “Admiral Mike” with aggressive, in-your-face vocals by Dolenz, the Dolenz hard rocker “Regional Girl,” Tork’s Cars-like “Run Away From Life” sung by Jones and featuring an ‘80s-style synthesizer solo, Tork’s haunting “I Believe You,” Dolenz’s self-reliance and self-empowerment ode “It’s My Life,” and Jones’s album-closing anthem “It’s Not Too Late.”

In light of the fact that Davy Jones is the first of The Monkees to leave us, it’s especially fitting that his are the last lead vocals on the album, especially on a song that could be as much about the relationship of The Monkees as it is about the relationship of a couple.

Because of this, no matter what the remaining Monkees do or don’t do, they will never have any unfinished business.

Monkees forever!

--Raj Manoharan

Personal Monkees Tidbit: I had the pleasure of meeting Peter Tork in the early 1990s at a local cable television station where I had been working. Tork was the latest in a long line of vintage celebrity guests on the poor man’s David Letterman show that was produced there. I was working master control for the station (I had nothing to do with the show at the time), and Tork came in asking for a bandage for his nicked finger. (I had actually met him earlier in the evening and gotten his autograph on a Monkees LP.) I don’t remember whether I was able to give him a bandage or had to refer him somewhere else, but, ah, what a memory! --RM

CD Retro (Fan) Review – Pool It! by The Monkees

Contrary to “popular” and “critical” opinion, The Monkees’ first reunion album is a refreshing, reassuring, and welcome evolution of The Monkees’ classic 1960s sound into the late 1980s.

With a couple of exceptions, the songs are written and performed by other composers and musicians, with Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, and Peter Tork providing lead vocals (Michael Nesmith didn’t participate in this reunion but would rejoin his comrades nine years later).

Even though the “boys” are now in their 40s on this recording, they have never sounded better, especially with the hint of maturation in their voices.

The music is basically light synth pop, with Dolenz handling the more upbeat tracks, Jones the more sentimental tunes (and one pop-rocker), and Tork the wacky Cars-like stuff.

While all the songs are enjoyable, the one real standout is the dark and chilling “Midnight” sung by Dolenz. It sounds like something right out of the Miami Vice television series, and it would be a shame if it never played on the show as it would have been perfect for it.

As for the overall musicianship of the backing band, the sprightly guitar work of Mark Christian sounds as slick and high-tech now as it did when I first heard the album as a 14-year-old teenager back in 1987.

If you like The Monkees and 1980s pop music, ignore the naysayers and enjoy the warmth of this nostalgic and contemporary collection that’s full of heart and soul.

--Raj Manoharan

Monday, May 2, 2016

CD (Fan) Review – Lotus, by Mike Moreno

The fifth album from Mike Moreno marks a major step forward in the artist's evolution as one of the most formidable and significant guitarists in the contemporary jazz scene.

Moreno's original compositions are grand and ambitious, with lyrical acoustic guitar musings that exude dreamy sentiment and smart electric guitar lines that bop with elegant finesse.

A touch of grace is provided by Aaron Parks on piano, and bassist Doug Weiss and drummer Eric Harland keep things moving with deep-rooted rhythmic grooves and highly charged percussion.

While the band functions as a tight unit, Moreno clearly shines as both a soloist and a leader, continually honing and refining his craft as he takes it to new heights of innovation and virtuosity.

Listening to Moreno's brilliant guitar playing is nothing short of ecstatic joy.

This CD will be very much appreciated by those who enjoy high-end jazz guitar and those who dig thoughtful instrumental music that is inspiring and resonant.

--Raj Manoharan