Tuesday, January 31, 2012

It's not astrology, it's The Monkees

Believe it or not, there are a lot of great Monkees albums out there. The group didn't just do great singles.

Ignore the foolish controversy of being a fabricated group. Especially in this modern age, far worse corporate musical atrocities have taken the spotlight. Focus instead on the great music, and accept The Monkees as the musical powerhouses that they were.

"Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd." is the fourth album released by the group, and it is a close second in terms of being my favorite Monkees album ("Headquarters" claims the top spot for me). The quality of the songs, the experimentation and the camaraderie of the group are all at their peaks with this release.

Following the general successes of the previous album ("Headquarters"), The Monkees stuck with Chip Douglas as the producer for "Pisces," their fourth album.

What successes came with "Headquarters," you might ask? Well, the group kicked off most of their corporate shackles (well, at least in terms of being forced to record songs they didn't choose) and performed on all of the material themselves (that's right, they played the instruments). And they wrote a good chunk of the material, too. Mike Nesmith, the prolific songwriter that he was (is?), rose to the occasion and gave the group three songs and co-wrote three of the other tracks. And Micky Dolenz wrote his first song, the hit "Randy Scouse Git" (released in the UK as "Alternate Title"). To top it off, The Monkees hand selected their producer (Douglas), and worked with him to create their most genuine album.

So how do you follow up such a monumental accomplishment?

The Monkees hit the studio and kept pushing boundaries, creating an album that most consider their finest. Critically and commercially a hit, "Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd." reflects its era (1967) about as well as any of their contemporaries at the time.

The facets of each member's personalities are pretty well represented, and the album's title itself is a reflection of the group: the astrological signs correlate to the band. Pisces is Dolenz, Aquarius is Peter Tork, Capricorn is Nesmith and Davy Jones ... is Jones (Jones also is a Capricorn, but he's represented by name to avoid confusion and duplication).

Some edges get smoothed over, as studio musicians were brought back into the fold to play on the record. But the Monkees continue to contribute as musicians and songwriters with this release, having yet to return to the "singers only" roles of the first two hit albums (though this "singers only" notion isn't entirely accurate, as Nesmith wrote and played on the first two albums, and Tork contributed guitar as well).

Some of The Monkees' best music was recorded for "Pisces." Sure, not every track included was gold (though I'd argue that there are no bad tracks here) ... but most of them were pretty damn good.

What were some of the highlights? I'm glad you asked. In no particular order:

"The Door Into Summer" may not have been written by a member of the group, but Nesmith lays down a fantastic lead vocal. There is such a sense of earnestness to the song, and the group's performance is tight. The song was written by Chip Douglas and Bill Martin (who wrote the fantastic "All of Your Toys" that the group recorded during "Headquarters"), but Nesmith's vocal is so committed that one would think he penned it himself.

"Words" is something of a stylistic nod back to their first couple of albums, and was written by their early hitmakers Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart (the guys who penned "Last Train to Clarksville," "(I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone," the TV theme song and many other tunes). Micky gives a very stirring vocal, he sounds very invested in the lyrics, and Peter gives a great counter harmony performance. Good stuff, all around.

"Pleasant Valley Sunday" may be the single best song the group ever recorded (the complicated guitar riff was played by Nesmith). Written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, the tune is one of the great coming-of-age songs that addresses the status quo and the faux happiness of cookie-cutter houses of suburbia. It is without a doubt my very favorite Monkees song, and I like a TON of Monkees songs.

"Cuddly Toy" by Harry Nilsson is actually quite scandalous if you listen to the lyrics (the musical bed and the vocal delivery help obscure this to a point where adults are likely to ignore the content ... but check it out!). "You're not the only cuddly toy / that was ever enjoyed by any boy / You're not the only choo-choo train / That was left out in the rain / the day after Santa came." From a group that was considered so kid friendly, that's fairly edgy. And Davy's voice lends just the right twist to the sound.

And there's "Love is Only Sleeping," written by the great team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Once again, Nesmith throws a fantastic vocal into the mix. The arrangement of the tune is all over the map, but the power is undeniable and the song is pure dynamite. The guitar throughout provides a great hook. Pure Sixties power.

Nesmith shines yet again with a little Tex-Mex country rock, written by his friends Michael Martin Murphey and Owens Castleman, on the tune "What Am I Doing Hangin' 'Round?" The initial lyric used to jar me a bit, to the extent where I never gave the song a fair shake. But once I listened to the tune about a man who put his schedule at a higher priority than love, and I heard how Nesmith injected the regret ... and the realization that he could repeat the steps that led him to the girl of his dreams but not find her again ... well, I was hooked. It's a gem of a song.

These aren't the only good songs, of course. I do enjoy the message song "Salesman," the Davy Jones sugar pop ditty "She Hangs Out" and the Moog-infused tracks "Daily Nightly" and "Star Collector." Song for song, performance for performance, "Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd." is top of the heap.

The deluxe 2-CD reissue offers stereo and mono mixes of the album, along with a clutch of bonus tracks (alternate takes, early versions, unreleased songs, etc.) that really make it a goldmine.

"Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd." catches The Monkees at the very height of their commercial success, and they are at their most creative in the studio. Nesmith, my favorite Monkee, provides five lead vocals (the most he contributed to a Monkees album).

Released in conjunction with the album, but not included on it, was the No. 1 single "Daydream Believer." The track would find its place on the next Monkees album ("The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees"), and would have made a wonderful addition to "Pisces." But with all the quality material already included, the album is not hurt by the omission.

After the release of this album, the group's fortunes would start to take a downward turn. Chip Douglas wasn't brought back to produce the next album; the group members wanted to produce their own material individually and release the material jointly under a joint production label. And the group stopped functioning as a self-contained band. Sure, there'd be times when they'd work together (and they still performed live together). But each group member would supervise studio musicians and friends on their individual projects.

There'd be more great music to come, but the overall quality of their releases began to get dodgy. The commercial outlook began to falter, band members would depart and the group would end the Sixties the pale imitation of the stars they were on "Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd."

On the horizon were the "Head" project, the departure of Peter Tork, the cynical yet delightful "Instant Replay," Nesmith's swan song "Present," and the Micky/Davy project "Changes." Then came the reunions, a revival in interest of the group's materials and TV show, new albums and more tours. The group would never again achieve the audio magic of their hey day ... but those glories are captured on their albums, to be enjoyed by all future generations.

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