MICHAEL NESMITH/SONGS (12CDs) review: SPAZ explores the musical universe of Michael Nesmith!
THE LONG REVIEW:
Fifty-three years after he stepped into the limelight with the release of The Monkees’ debut single in August of 1966, Michael Nesmith remains a musical enigma. The story of The Monkees has been told so many times – perhaps TOO many times – so I’ll respectfully skip over most of the details. One thing I will mention is how Nesmith seemed slightly out of step with the Pop charts yet completely in step and confident of his own musical vision. While Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones handled the bulk of the lead vocals for The Monkees’ glorious hits, Nesmith added a sophisticated depth to the album tracks he wrote and/or produced. Although the most naturally gifted as a songwriter in the band, his lead vocals were not featured on a Monkees A-side until 1969, the year he graced the topside of two singles in a row!
Often overlooked at the time, Nesmith’s deep album tracks on the band’s albums are gems that have remained fresh and were, at the time, musically prophetic – not many chart-topping Pop/Rock artists were embracing American Folk and Country & Western in a business still transitioning from Merseybeat to Psychedelia. However, times they were a-changin’ and Country Rock was just around the corner…
Nesmith became extremely prolific during his final two years with the Monkees, writing and recording an array of melodic songs that defied genre classification. Were they Country? Pop? Both? Sadly, a good portion of those recordings remained unreleased for decades, finally seeing the light of day with various box sets and expanded editions that have been released over the years. Nesmith’s recordings in ’68 and ‘69 laid the foundation for what was to come. And with his exit from The Monkees in 1970, the Nez magic truly took flight.
His four years in The Monkees may be what he is best known for but the 24 years of recordings contained on the 12 CD set SONGS (Edsel Records) is what we should base his musical legacy on. As a pioneer in Country Rock – alongside The Byrds, Rick Nelson, Poco, etc. – Michael Nesmith was a very unique artist, blessed with a stubborn vision that bucked any trend in the music business. And more importantly, he was unpredictable, switching gears and challenging himself each time that he felt musically restless. This set might start with his pioneering Country Rock recordings but it ends somewhere very different. The journey this set takes is truly inspiring.
Nesmith was and is an extremely intelligent songwriter, understanding the craft of creating art from the inside out. Born and raised in Texas, he shared the air with legendary Texas troubadours and drank from the same rivers of inspiration. During the years covered on this box set – 1970 to 1994 – he continued to display a deep appreciation of his roots even when he travelled down different musical avenues. And while we are all familiar with his voice thanks to those ‘60s Pop records, he utilized it to greater effect during his solo years. Never one to just stand there and sing, he would inhabit the world inside each song. He could switch from a classic Country crooner to a bemused narrator in the course of a single line, never missing a beat. His phrasing was unique, often using pronunciation of certain words to add to the mood. His dry wit that was so evident during his TV stint in the ’60s added to the fun of a Nez release. And did I mention that he could yodel? And pretty damn well, too!
Let’s begin with the RCA Records years…
The first three CDs of this box set feature his work with his musical co-horts the First National Band (Red Rhodes on pedal steel guitar, drummer John Ware and bassist John London). Rather than knock out slick and polished Country Music, Michael and the boys keep it loose, raw, and grounded. But don’t think for a minute that he turned his back on the Devil’s music – he still plenty of street cred as he weaves the tangled Country, Folk, and Rock webs together flawlessly.
MAGNETIC SOUTH (Disc One) officially introduced Nez’s Country Rock sound to the masses. While he was always adding the Folk and Country elements to the Monkees records, this 1970 album was the first time he was able to share his musical vision over the course of an entire record. Nesmith was certainly featured front and center, but Rhodes’ pedal steel work was a key element to the band’s sound. Nesmith’s first solo hit single, “Joanne,” is featured and it remains a mesmerizing and haunting piece of work. Instead of just beginning and ending, “Joanne” seems to materialize out of thin air and then vanish from whence it came in just over three minutes. Magical! The album also featured gems like “Calico Girlfriend,” “The Crippled Lion,” and a truncated “Nine Times Blue,” one of his finest then-unreleased Monkees tracks.
LOOSE SALUTE (Disc Two) travelled down a similar path but showed more confidence. Like the second chapter in an ongoing story, the album’s highlights included “Silver Moon,” the Psych Country of “Thanks For The Ride,” “Conversations” (an updated and retitled version of the unreleased Monkees tune “Carlisle Wheeling”), and a Country-fried hoedown take on “Listen To The Band.”
NEVADA FIGHTER (Disc Three) had a cleaner, clearer production than the first two albums. Still sticking to his guns, the album offered up another fine batch of songs including “Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun To Care),” “Only Bound,” and the rocking groove of the title track and “Grand Ennui.” (Discs One and Two contain one bonus track each.)
Disc Four is 1972’s TANTAMOUNT TO TREASON, VOLUME ONE, the first and only album backed by The Second National Band. The only holdovers from the first band were Nesmith (obviously) and Red Rhodes. Kicking off with the heavy stomp of “Mama Rocker,” TANTAMOUNT… was an album that took quite a few musical detours while still remaining rooted in Country Rock and Folk. “Wax Minute” (written by Richard Stekol) was a standout on the album featuring one of his finest vocal performances (and a few killer hooks to boot). The album is a varied mix that may have confused some folks looking for “more of the same,” but thankfully, Nesmith challenged himself and the listener with something a bit different. (The CD features two bonus tracks.)
The sarcastically-titled AND THE HITS JUST KEEP ON COMIN’ (Disc Five) was an album of acoustic tracks recorded by Nesmith and Rhodes. More intimate than his previous albums, AND THE HITS… was filled with top notch material including “Roll With The Flow,” “The Upside of Good-Bye,” ‘Lady Love,” and Nesmith’s solo version of “Different Drum,” a Nez-penned 1967 hit for The Stone Poneys (featuring Linda Ronstadt).
1973’s PRETTY MUCH YOUR STANDARD RANCH STASH (Disc Six) was a near-perfect album. By album #6 in a three year period, you’d think he would run out of good songs but that was most certainly not the case here. OK, so “Some Of Shelly’s Blues” was an unreleased Monkees song but it sounded fresh as a daisy alongside the wonderful “Prairie Lullaby,” “Continuing,” and ‘Winonah.” While not exactly a mis-step, “The Back Porch And A Fruit Jar Full Of Iced Tea” was an eight minute Prog-Country song that still boggles the mind. Fun to listen to, the song sounded out of place on this otherwise stellar collection of tracks. With that being said, it showed that Nesmith was never afraid to try something new.
Oh, and that thing I just said about him trying something new? Yeah, that.
1974’s THE PRISON (Disc Seven) was Nesmith’s first album on his own Pacific Arts label. Leaving the majors and operating as an independent artist meant that Michael could do whatever the hell he wanted. And a book with a soundtrack was exactly what the hell he wanted to do. Wait… what? THE PRISON was an ambitious concept album even without the ‘book’ that came with the LP. Changing course, musically, the album featured a lush combination of acoustic guitars and keyboards (synthesizer, piano, organ). And yes, Red Rhodes is on board for the ride, too. The songs were more layered than previous albums, allowing the mood of the song to be just as important as the lyrics. While some may have been confused by the change of musical direction, this was a refreshing move that pointed in the direction he was headed in…
After a three year break, Michael returned in 1977 with FROM A RADIO ENGINE TO THE PHOTON WING (Disc Eight). Referring to this album as a return to form would be an insult to the previous seven albums so we’ll just say that this release found Nesmith dipping his toes back into the Pop/Rock world. However, it wasn’t just a standard Pop album – it was a Michael Nesmith album, which means that there were plenty of surprises to be found. The single edit of the album opener “Rio” was a hit and featured a pioneering video that paved the way for the MTV revolution. The album successfully mixed Pop, Latin, Tropical, and World Music rhythms alongside hints of Country, Gospel, Folk, and the Blues. His return to the Pop universe coincided with Punk and New Wave, which meant the album was criminally overlooked by music fans, who were turning their backs on the old guard and making way for the new generation. Still, FROM A RADIO ENGINE… was a fun album that was just part of Nesmith’s creative rebirth as a multimedia pioneer.
Supposedly conceived as an audio and video album, 1979’s INFINITE RIDER ON THE BIG DOGMA (Disc Nine) is a bona fide Rock album in every sense of the world. Possibly energized by the electricity that New Wave brought to the charts, INFINITE RIDER… was a revved up mix of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Pop, Music Hall, Funk, and whatever Nesmith could throw into the mix. “Magic” was an homage to ‘50s rock with Michael singing in falsetto while “Cruisin’” embraced funky New Wave. Nesmith still showed his softer side on the album as well, making the album a well-rounded affair and a long-time favorite of his devoted fanbase.
Although Nesmith started on a new album in 1980, he abandoned it as other aspects of his business (videos, movies, Elephant Parts, etc.) consumed his time. In 1989, Rhino Records released two compilations of Nesmith’s solo material. THE OLDER STUFF contained classics from his early ‘70s catalog while THE NEWER STUFF featured material lifted off of FROM A RADIO ENGINE…. and INFINTE RIDER… plus eight songs from the abandoned 1980 album. Disc Ten in this box features only those unreleased songs from THE NEWER STUFF, each of which are quality additions to his catalog. Sounding like the perfect mix of the previous two albums (albeit with more synths), it is a shame that these weren’t released in the early ‘80s. “Tanya” is one of the loveliest songs recorded during this creative time in his career. On the other hand, “Tahiti Condo” is one of the goofiest songs in his catalog… but that is certainly not a bad thing. Consider this disc the third part to this Pacific Arts trilogy.
1992’s TROPICAL CAMPFIRES (Disc Eleven) was his first album of ‘new’ material in 13 years. Blending Pop, Folk, Country, Latin, and other genres, this was an album that took in all aspects of his career. “Moon Over The Rio Grande,” a gentle update of the Country Rock of old, was proof that he was still able to add a fresh twist to the music that he had embraced so lovingly decades before. The album is remarkably warm and inviting, much like Michael and his band were gathered around a campfire (in Reno? No, Rio…) and creating something fresh from out of the influences that raced through his veins sinCe his youthful days in Texas. And Red Rhodes was along for the ride, too!
Two years later, Nesmith released THE GARDEN (Disc Twelve), a sequel to THE PRISON and the second release in a proposed trilogy. THE GARDEN was a mostly instrumental release that could easily fall into the New Age, Folk, or Soundtrack categories. The tracks offered up warm and comforting musical journeys often adding a mild bit of tension with some well-placed electric guitar solos. “Life Becoming,” the only track to feature vocals, is a powerful closer to the album. And coincidentally, to this box set as well.
THE SHORT REVIEW:
Keep on truckin’