Thursday, May 31, 2018

Review: Michael Nesmith & The First National Band VInyl Reissues

Micky Dolenz may have been the voice of The Monkees’ greatest hits and Davy Jones may have been the group’s face, but no Monkee was more poised for a great solo career than Michael Nesmith. As a unique writer, singer, and producer, he had the essential skills to make quality records, and the experimental side that saw him indulging in impenetrable poetics, playing with Tex-Mex rhythms, drawing pure country influences into pop, and digressing down some really weird psychedelic alleys suggested his solo work could be quite innovative as well.

Nesmith’s first outing with his group The First National Band follows up on all the promise of his Monkees work. While artists such as The Byrds and Dylan had already done conceptually C&W discs, only Nesmith applied The Beatles’ most out-there production concepts to country. On Magnetic South, he revolutionizes terrific songs such as “Calico Girlfriend”, “Hollywood”, “Little Red Rider”, the minor hit “Joanne”, and the rump-kicking “Mama Nantucket” with Pepper-esque segues, sound effects, psychedelic improvisations, and surreal lyricism. Red Rhodes’s pedal steel is a neat substitute for the absence of Mellotrons, harpsichords, and orchestras.

Also released in 1970, Loose Salute fails to build on Magnetic South’s innovations but it does deliver several more excellent originals (particularly “Silver Moon” on which Nesmith adds country-ska to his growing list of wacky hybrids, “Tengo Amore”, and “Thanks for the Ride”), as well as a superb cover of “I Fall to Pieces”. On the downside, “Hello Lady” has an irritating chorus and a couple of Monkees-era songs suffer in comparison to the originals: “Listen to the Band” lacks the grandeur that masks the slight songwriting of The Monkees’ single and “Conversations” lacks the haunting atmosphere of the version Nez recorded in 1967 as “Carlisle Wheeling”.

For his final album with the First National Band, Nesmith handled a dwindling material issue by packing Side B of Nevada Fighter with a so-so array of covers, many of which are by former Monkees composers such as Harry Nilsson, Bill Martin, and Michael Murphy. However, the reserved batch could have used a few jolts of Rock & Roll energy. The center of Side A also sags with too many ballads (though “Propinquity” is a pretty Monkees leftover given a superior remake here), but the rockers that bookend it are top notch with “Grand Ennui” igniting things with tough attitude and the title track breaking a much needed sweat at side’s end. Still Nevada Fighter feels like the continuation of a slight downward slide. Of course the band’s dissolution brought that problem to a fast end.  

Nevada Fighter isn’t a great album, but it at least sounds nice. Sundazed’s new colored vinyl reissues of the FNB trilogy sound nice too, drawing out the warmth in the rustic atmosphere. I was struck by how harsh BMG’s 1999 CD twofer of the first two albums sounded in comparison, and how much punchier John London’s bass and John Ware’s drums are on Sundazed’s new vinyl.

Friday, May 25, 2018

10 Reasons 'Return of the Jedi' Doesn't Suck

Sorry, Richard Marquand. Sorry, Bib Fortuna. But when it comes to assessing the original Star Wars trilogy, your episode tends to come out on bottom. There are multiple reasons why Return of the Jedi is a lesser movie than Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. It lacks the freshness of the first movie, even resorting to duplicating a lot of Star Wars beats (most blatantly in flying the heroes back to Tattooine and rebuilding the Death Star). It lacks the relative depth of Empire largely because George Lucas was adamant about not overtaxing his fans brains, which he apparently assumed were fairly puny. Lucas was mainly concerned with drawing in a new audience of toddlers, whom he assumed would bully their parents into buying everything on the Ewok shelf at the local Toys R Us.

Despite the issues with Return of the Jedi, it would take sixteen years for there to be a Star Wars movie that genuinely sucked. Here are ten reasons why it may not be fair to say that about Return of the Jedi.

1. The Ultimate Monster Menagerie

Although Star Wars is likely the most popular movie ever made, it has a sloppy legacy because George Lucas is notoriously dissatisfied with it (hence those terrible Special Editions). One of the biggest bugs up his butt is the fact that the assortment of Bug Eyed Monsters populating the Mos Eisley Cantina weren’t up to his standards. This zany sequence still managed to become one of the film’s most beloved, but one has to admit that there is a slapdash quality to some of the rubber-masked aliens. And if this is not apparent upon viewing Star Wars for the first time, it will become apparent after seeing Return of the Jedi because that sequel’s menagerie of monsters is so markedly superior. In crafting the Jabba’s palace sequence, a creature design team that included Joe Johnston, Phil Tippett, and Chris Walas redecorated our fantasies and nightmares with aliens bizarre (Squid Head, Ree-Yees), comical (Salacious Crumb, Sy Snootles), genuinely frightening (Bib Fortuna), or a combination of all those qualities (the Gamorrean Guards). And one creation was so stunning that he warrants an entry on this list all to himself…

2. Jabba the Hutt

Monday, May 14, 2018

Review: 'The Beach Boys with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra'

What does a record company issue when a valuable property’s back catalogue has already been remastered, remixed, repackaged, rereleased, and rejiggered more times than anyone could count? Something like The Beach Boys with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, I guess.

Superimposing Muzak strings onto a simple rocker like “Fun, Fun, Fun” or “Kokomo”, a song that no one but Mike Love remembers fondly, is a terrible idea. Productions such as those on Pet Sounds are already sufficiently orchestral. Yet there are possibilities. Some of The Beach Boys’ more unfinished-sounding tracks—say “Cool, Cool Water”, much of Smiley Smile, or oddities such as “Can’t Wait Too Long” –might have been interesting if finished off with arrangements more in the experimental spirit of such pieces. The fairly complementary and relatively dissonant orchestrations on “Heroes and Villains” (the only track exclusively recorded for Smiley Smile in the bunch) support this. The one other track that survives the orchestral treatment is “Darlin’”, which receives an understated bed of sweeping strings in the Philly Soul vein. However, by mostly playing it safe and only tampering with The Beach Boys’ most familiar tunes instead of seeking out oddities that might actually benefit from this concept, conductors/composers Steve Sidwell and Sally Herbert smear a layer of pap over some of the most perfect productions in pop.
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