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.
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