“We are here, and we’re gonna have a good time. Like we did before… supposedly.”
Time is a funny thing. It can be a blessing, a curse, a burden, or a joy. For many people, it’s a measurement of their lives, “the time this happened” or “the time so-and-so said that.” Now, admittedly, the Monkees’ new album, Good Times! (the first in almost 20 years, can you believe it?) doesn’t take the concept too much to heart, but it’s a recurring theme nonetheless. Including its titular track, three songs mention “time” in some way; the lyric above isn’t even from that song. Supernatural? Perhaps. Bologna? Perhaps not.
Nearly 50 years after Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, and Peter Tork burst onto television sets and radios as a rambunctious group of “insane boys” wielding guitars and sparkling stars in their eyes, they’ve returned with Good Times! By now, the story of the quartet’s troupe-to-group transformation is legendary: how the four actors actually gained creative control of their made-for-TV tunes from the “powers that be” (read: Monkees music supervisor Don Kirshner) and turned the machine into a self-produced carnival that continued beyond the life of the show — and the life of the band.
Though the Monkees disbanded as the ’60s came to a close, members reunited through the subsequent three decades, each offspring album sounding like the slurp of its era, just as their original material was very much an amalgam of the best the ’60s music industry had to offer.
In the ’80s, there was Pool It! (note the common exclamation point — more supernatural bologna), its tracks running the gamut from pseudo-metal to New Wave to whatever “She’s Moving in With Rico” is. Nesmith, historically hesitant when it comes to Monkees projects, joined his ex-bandmates for what would be the band’s final album with all four original members (Davy Jones died suddenly in 2012), Justus. Utilizing trendy hooks, middle-aged melodies, references to cocaine, and some decent songs (“You and I,” though…), the 1996 album isn’t terrible, even if it wasn’t quite a Monkees album.
But what is a Monkees album then? Esoterically speaking, it embodies that strange and joyful vibe of youth and possibility one gets from watching the original Monkees series or listening to those first half-dozen records. It’s Micky, Davy, Peter, and Mike running through a conceptual pre-fab field of psychedelia and pushing youngsters toward the future of mass-media culture they inspired.
That ephemeral feeling of those early Monkees records is definitely what producer Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne, That Thing You Do!) attempted to recreate with the aptly titled Good Times!. After those two uneven reunion records, this is the Monkees album that fans have been waiting for: lush and brightly produced Sixties-inspired sunshine pop featuring Dolenz’s iconic vocals, strong turns from Nesmith, signature instrumentation by Tork, and a musical cameo from the departed Jones.
First, let’s start with the low points because, honestly, there aren’t many. Ironically, Peter Tork gets more grooves here than on most on-period Monkees records. His perfunctory cover of “Wasn’t Born To Follow,” originally pitched for the Monkees but passed onto the Byrds, is a welcome addition from (and return to Monkeedom for) songwriters Carole King and Gerry Goffin. The arrangement is bare bones, reminiscent of a Headquarters outtake in the same vein as “I’ll Spend My Life With You” and fits right into Tork’s folk roots.
However, his songwriting contribution is the waltzing “Little Girl,” penned in the band’s early days and initially intended for Davy Jones. Unfortunately, it’s something of a misstep. Tork’s talent has enriched the Monkees when utilized properly, including his virtuosic skills on the keyboards and banjo, but this track fails to hit the mark, especially considering the omission of his bonus-track addition”A Better World,” a spiritual sequel to the freewheelin’ “For Pete’s Sake.”
This is a small quibble because the rest of the album is a total home run. A parade of lauded songwriters including Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, XTC’s Andy Partridge, and Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard bring out what made the Monkees so great in the first place: another parade of lauded songwriters, including the aforementioned Goffin/King, the Neils (Diamond and Sedaka, of course), and so many more.
Good Times!‘ first single, Cuomo’s “She Makes Me Laugh” has a soaring, Weezer-like chorus and Cuomo’s trademark stream-of-consciousness verses (a la “Beverly Hills”) but gets rolled in powdered sugar by Dolenz’s vocals and Schlesinger’s jangly arrangement. Pair that with Partridge’s “You Bring the Summer,” which starts bright and sunshiny, then breaks down into a psychedelic wave aided by Nesmith. If this were 1967, it wouldn’t have been out of place on an album around the Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. period.
What’s truly brilliant about Good Times! is its ability to mimic the Monkees’ own career progression into psychedelic sounds. Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller’s “Birth of An Accidental Hipster” deserves a pass for its questionable (and a little bit pretentious) title because the song itself is a jewel in the album’s crown. Taking a page from the Beatles’ songbook (quite literally — the bassline and outro is so “Rain”), the two alt-mod kings present a tune that cycles from jam to piano-hall ditty featuring Nesmith and Dolenz respectively.
But the real standout of the newly written songs is the relaxed and beautiful “Me & Magdalena” from Gibbard which embodies a genre pioneered by bands like Death Cab for Cutie, the Postal Service, and the Decemberists. Indeed, in the liner notes, Gibbard says “with zero hyperbole” that writing for the Monkees is the highlight of his career. It shows. Here, Dolenz and Nesmith harmonize on vocals in this effective and moving ballad, at once evocative of past Micky/Mike vocal layering (delicious), but also representing more modern, indie songwriting structures and arrangements.
Schlesinger’s own “Our Own World,” feels appropriately influenced by the everlasting “Daydream Believer” and features Dolenz over a bouncy harpsichord. It feels like, out of the collection, this is the one meant for Davy Jones; you can almost hear his vaudevillian flair accenting the chorus.
Speaking of Davy, he’s represented with the Neil Diamond-penned, “Love to Love,” a previously unreleased fan favorite from the Missing Links series in the ’90s. (Side note: it shares a distinction in that, along with songs like “I Don’t Think You Know Me,” it was recorded multiple times to no avail. Alas, sometimes great songs never make it onto albums — until 50 years later.) It’s great to hear that familiar voice, even for a brief and shining moment, finally unearthing a would-be classic from the vault.
In the same breath, Monkees archivist, historian, and producer Andrew Sandoval has done an ace job finding some unfinished and deep tracks from luminaries like Boyce and Hart (swinger “Whatever’s Right” with Bobby Hart guesting on backing vocals — good times!). Bubblegum pop also slides right in with Jeff Barry and Joey Levine’s “Gotta Give It Time,” sounding like it emerged straight from the garage, crunchy guitars and all.
The most seamless and striking surprise is actually the album’s R&B-tinged title track. The uninitiated might wonder, “Who is Micky Dolenz trading lead vocals with?” Friends, it’s none other than Dolenz’s old cohort and, yes, former Monkees songwriter Mr. Harry Nilsson. The groovin’ guitar arrangement and Dolenz’s playful vocal weaves around Nilsson’s verses in an eerily natural manner and instantly conjures up visions of a smoky club in the Sunset Strip’s prime carousing years.
Good Times! closes with “I Know What I Know,” a poignant and introspective ballad from Nesmith — a very un-Nesmith contribution considering this is the guy whose nomenclature includes “phantasmagoric splendor,” but beautiful nonetheless — and Micky Dolenz’s charming onstage-schtick-brought-to-song, the “Sgt. Pepper”-heavy “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had a Good Time),” co-written with Schlesinger. If you couldn’t tell, the opening quote of the review was extracted from this tune.
Which means we’ve come full circle — and so have the Monkees. It’s ironic that the band of rebels who once demanded control of their musical destiny have gone from being an art-by-committee creation to a fully functional outfit and now back again — but who’s complaining when the results are this good? In a lot of ways, the Monkees have returned to their roots, what made them so beloved and legendary, but in their own way.
Good Times! doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not, and neither do Tork, Dolenz, or even Nesmith. They embrace what’s theirs in a way that only they can. Perhaps they’re realizing that the Monkees are the only ones who can be the Monkees, and part of that team are songwriters who infuse the music with different facets and personalities. In a way, it feels like a resolve embraces the record like never before. Perhaps it was never possible prior to this 50th anniversary, or maybe it was just the right moment. Time is funny that way.
The Monkees’ Good Times! is out Friday, May 27 from Rhino Records.