Tag Archives: Gorillaz

GOOD TIMES! by The Monkees

Can somebody please tell me when it was that nostalgia became such a huge commodity? I don’t remember there being so much reverence for the past when I was a wee lad. Sometime in the 1990’s when they started adapting shows like The Brady Bunch and Lost in Space into feature films is when I became aware of nostalgia for the first time. I used to think it was kinda sad/lame, but now that I’m turning into an old fart I’m beginning to see the appeal. Anyway, I bring all this up because when I first heard that The Monkees were going to put out a new album in 2016, I was pretty much nonplussed but I could smell the nostalgia in the air. These long lost reunions never yield anything close to good, so I wrote the whole concept of a new Monkees album off.

the-monkees-good-times-album-rivers-cuomo

The Monkees were never really my thing. Besides being too young to watch their television show, I was born in an era where they were considered a joke. A sad, pale corporate imitation of The Beatles. Growing up I was a Beatle-fan and had no time for The Monkees and their less-than serious 60’s shtick. It wasn’t until I got much older that I learned that while The Monkees weren’t exactly serious musicians, they had a ton of real talent backing them up. People like Carole King and Harry Nilsson were penning songs for the imaginary TV-band. It was around the time that Gorillaz came out that my attitude towards The Monkees started to change. Perhaps I’d judged them too harshly. Less of a band and more of a cultural happening, The Monkees occupy a very strange (very meta) part of 1960’s culture.

So what about this new 2016 album, GOOD TIMES? Well, I got interested in it a bit once I found out that Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne was going to produce the record. Then I found out The Monkees were tapping Andy Partridge of XTC and Rivers Cuomo of Weezer to write songs. Then I heard the album would feature new covers of Harry Nilsson and Carole King songs–and the deal was sealed for me: I had to hear this record. It’s a strange thing to log into your Spotify account and boot up a new album from The Monkees. But that’s the world that we live in now, so that’s what I did a few weeks ago when the album was released. To my shock, GOOD TIMES! is a fantastic pop album that’s a ton of fun to listen to. Is this groundbreaking, earth-shattering music? No. Is GOOD TIMES! a soul-lifting, life-inspiring album that reaffirmed my love of music? Not quite. Is it the best Monkees album of all time? Yeah, it is.

I realize that statement, “best Monkees album of all time,” might seem like faint praise…because it is…but remember this is band that put out “Last Train to Clarksville.” While not the greatest song of all time, “Last Train To Clarksville” is a one of the better bubblegum pop songs from any decade, not just the decade when Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney were at their pop zenith.

GOOD TIMES! opens with Nilsson’s “Good Time,” a soulful, sweaty party song. Lead singer Davy Jones has sadly left us, so Micky Dolenz does most of the singing (though Jones does appear posthumously on one track, the Neil Diamond-penned “Love to Love”).

“You Bring the Summer” is a lovely, charming pop ditty that recalls the quaint, innocent teenybopper party songs of the early 1960’s (read: before the drugs really hit). Written by Andy Partridge, the track sounds like it’d belong on the gentler-side of one of his Dukes of Stratosphere recordings. There are a couple of odd British phrases (i.e. “sun cream” rather than “sun screen”) that add a glaze of weirdness to an otherwise basic (albeit very proficient) pop song. Rivers Cuomo’s song “She Makes Me Laugh” is easily the best song on the album, a sunny song of love and devotion. The track artfully blends Beatle-esque rock with Beach Boys-like backing vocals. This is the sort of song you hear and when you get to the end you hit “repeat” so you can go again. The only part of “She Makes Me Laugh” that bums me out is the fact that Rivers isn’t able to conjure up a song like this for Weezer. Whatever happened to Mr. Cuomo and Co. can’t be blamed on a lack of talent–Cuomo can still write a really great song. I guess there’s always the next Weezer album, but I digress…

Another really great track is “Me & Magdalena,” a soft ballad written by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie. The song has a dreamy, twilight feel that’s very comforting…it took me a few listens before I picked up on the fact that the song is ostensibly about death/dying. It’s not the buzzkill that you’d think and is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the material on the album (i.e. it’s more than just a fun pop song). This song is so good, in fact, it’s got me thinking I need to revisit Death Cab (a band that I never really gave a fair shake to if I’m being honest).

“Birth of an Accidental Hipster,” the strangest track on the record, has the most interesting pedigree. Written by Oasis founder Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller of The Jam, “Birth of an Accidental Hipster” is weird. There are weird vocal effects and the song yo-yos between faux-psychedelia and campfire sing-a-long. The first time I heard it I was convince that it was the worst song on the record. Then I saw that it was written by two to of the best British songwriters of the last 30 years, so I gave the track another chance. Then I gave it another chance. And another. Eventually the song wove it’s magic on me and it’s one of my favorites on the record. But like “Me & Magdalena” it doesn’t feel like a Monkees track, it’s a bit of an outlier. But that’s a good thing.

“Wasn’t Born To Follow”is a Carole King/Gerry Goffin song that was most famously covered by The Byrds. The song has a pastoral, Kinks-like quality that I really dig. Like the Harry Nilsson track that opens the album, this older song is less bubblegum than those written by the youngbloods. It would have been interesting to hear an album of just these type of songs. I found the tonal shifting with these more meaningful songs and the new bubblegum was a bit dizzying. GOOD TIMES! is front-loaded with new, sugary songs and ends on decidedly more adult fare.

Overall, GOOD TIMES! is…well…a really good time! A handful of these songs will probably haunt my playlists for years to come. I wouldn’t call this an all-timer by any means, but for a 2016 Monkees album, GOOD TIMES! is pretty outstanding. Worth noting, there a bunch of non-album tracks that one can hear depending on the venue by which they consume the record. On Spotify/digital streaming services, the bonus tracks are “Terrifying” written by Zach Rogue of Rouge Wave and an electric uptempo version of “Me & Magdalena.” I’m not a fan of the latter, but “Terrifying” is damn good and probably should have been included on the album proper. I’m half tempted to seek out the other bonus tracks just to see what other fantastic nuggets were omitted.

Put aside your preconceived notions and give GOOD TIMES! a shot if you’re a fan of any of the songwriters mentioned above and/or if you’re a fan of old-fashioned pop music.

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Classic Albums Revisited: GORILLAZ

The brainchild of Brit-pop wunderkind Damon Albarn and comic book artist Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz appeared to be a side-project wrapped in a marketing gimmick.  A fake band of anime monkey-kids, are you joking? I distinctly remember thinking Gorillaz was all flash and no substance when the band’s music video for “Clint Eastwood” was all over MTV.  Eventually I sat down and listened to GORILLAZ and to my surprise, the music was stranger than I’d been lead to believe from that first single.  The songs skewed heavily towards electronica and hip-hop, two genres I wasn’t particularly fond of at the time.  I gave up on the album after only one listen and didn’t return to it again until after the band’s second album came out.  I think my biggest gripe with the record was a matter of expectation.  I’d been sold an album by the dude from Blur…but GORILLAZ turned out to be far removed from the classic Brit-pop mold.

Since that first listen I’ve decided that the album’s fusion of genres, the thing that initially turned me off, is ultimately what makes GORILLAZ such a monumental masterwork.  In addition, the first Gorillaz album was my gateway to hip-hop/rap: this album literally expanded my horizons.

Gorillaz Album Art

While the fake band aspect of Gorillaz might seem like just a ploy, I think it’s an integral part of how GORILLAZ  ended up being so special.   Free from the shackles of Blur, Albarn’s little side-project was a ticket to artistic freedom.  Surrounded by a small army of producers, musicians, and rappers, Albarn  felt more comfortable operating in a skin that wasn’t his own.  The goofy cartoon facade allowed him to let his freak flag fly.  It also expanded the very definition of who “the band” was, allowing for more people to participate in the recording of the album than a typical four piece band.  GORILLAZ opens with “Re-Hash,” a song that sends up the notion of pursuing fame and money.  I find it no coincidence that of all the songs on the album, “Re-Hash” is the one that sounds the most like Blur.    From the beginning of the album, Albarn is casting aside his former artistic identity.  After this opening the album descends into Trip-Hop, a fusion of hip-hop and electronica.

The mournful “Tomorrow Comes Today” reflects the loneliness and frustration of being constantly in the public eye, as well as dissatisfaction with the digital age.  Like “Re-Hash,” this song is seems to be a commentary on Albarn’s time in Blur.  Next, the solemn “New Genius (Brother)” fuses a mixture of soul and hip-hop with an ethereal production.  The mysteriously misanthropic lyrics add to the song’s creepy feeling.   Listening to “New Genius” is like taking a slow boat ride with a quiet, angry ghost.  This ghostly quality is carried over into the next song, the single “Clint Eastwood.”

“Clint Eastwood” works as a great single because the band was able to distill the band’s cross-cultural fusion into a tasty pop treat.  With Albarn’s indie-rock hook and Del tha Funkee Homosapien’s rapping how could the song not have been a massive hit? Add a visually striking music video and you have the makings of a monster.  When the video premiered I remember having great difficulty going more than a few hours without seeing it on TV.  And while not as daring or genre bending as some of GORILLAZ’s other tracks, “Clint Eastwood” gently lowers your defenses while at the same time serving as fair warning for what the rest of the album would contain.

“Man Research (Clapper)” comes next, and for me this is where the album truly starts to get interesting.   This droning dance track is lyrically very dark (“to kill the model from my front door”) but features an upbeat tempo and a screeching “yeah!” refrain that belies the song’s violent purpose.  The quick, but effective “Punk” follows, blasting the listener out of the techno trance of “Man Research (Clapper”)”.  A surprisingly straightforward punk song, “Punk” adds yet another genre to an already complex album.

Once again the album quickly changes gears:  “Sound Check (Gravity)” opens with Albarn softly lamenting gravity before descending into a cold, electronica groove of looping samples and record scratches.  The effect is disarming, especially when Albarn sings with himself near the end of song—his depressed lower register doing a duet with his falsetto.  The song ends and GORILLAZ offers up “Double Bass,” the album’s only instrumental.  Like the title suggests, the song is a spacey, bass heavy little ditty.  And while it’s the closest thing to filler on the album, this song is also one of my favorite tracks.  In fact, I wish that there were more short instrumental interludes like “Double Bass” on GORILLAZ.

“Double Bass” makes a great transition into “Rock The House,”  the second rap-heavy track that features Del tha Funkee Homosapien.  The repeated horn loop, taken from a jazz song called “Modesty Blaise,” and the carefree lyrics make “Rock The House” the first truly fun song on the album.  This lightness remains for several more tracks, such as the dubbed out “19-2000″ and the Spanish(?) “Latin Simone (Que Pasa Contigo).”  The second single off the album, “19-2000” is notable for featuring Japanese singer/guitarist Miho Hatori.  Her presences adds yet another cultural touch to an already global album.

GORILLAZ then begins to descend back into darkness, first with the moody “Starshine” and then with the up-beat sounding but depressing “Slow Country.”  The album then goes full-on dark with the aggressive “M1 A1,” a punky companion to the earlier “Punk.”   It is here that album officially ends, however different regions got different bonus tracks tacked onto the end.  The U.S. version of the album continues with the reggae/ska-tinged “Dracula” which full of both funk and gloom.  The album then wraps up with the East-meets-West mash-up “Left Hand Suzuki Method.” The song’s title, a reference to a famous Japanese method of Violin instruction, echoes the philosophy of GORILLAZ: taking the usual manner of making music and doing it just a little different.  The album’s emotional shape, a parabola of dark to light and back again to dark, gives the album more concept than many so-called concept albums.

What could have been a goofy one-off ended up being the most artistic album of Albarn’s career.  Gorillaz liquid line-up allowed the band to grow and morph several times over on both the album and on subsequent records.  Always keen on staying one step ahead of mass-market appeal, Albarn’s first Gorillaz  record succeeded in being edgy, diverse, and fun.  The album is weird without being weird for the sake of being weird, something that future Gorillaz records would wind up becoming.  I think the level of innovation and artistic daring on display on the album is somewhat lost to history.  Compare GORILLAZ to the top two best selling albums of 2001, HYBRID THEORY by Linkin Park or HOT SHOT by Shaggy, and suddenly the fearless daring of Albarn’s album becomes apparent.

The legacy of GORILLAZ is a world in which genres such as rap, rock, and world music flourish and feed off each other’s creativity in the mainstream.  I’m not suggesting that GORILLAZ was the first time all of these styles commingled, but I do think it was the first successful commercial and artistic fusion of so many different styles and cultures.   And while the lines of genre weren’t forever torn asunder, they were moved to brilliant effect.

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Hot Sauce Committee Part Two

It’s almost 2012 and I’m sitting here listening to a kick ass Beastie Boys album, how is this possible? Well it seems that the Beasties can’t, won’t, and don’t stop. Longevity in music is rare and among those still standing those who are able to stand tall are even rarer.  The Beastie Boys are standing tall.

Mike D, MCA, and Ad-Rock are still coming up with impressive songs that are both literate and funny.  The singles are just as strong as they were back in the ’80s.  The album opener, “Make Some Noise” is a party-anthem that manages to seamlessly name-check Ted Danson and Willy Wonka’s Fizzy Lifting drink.  While I don’t think doing that is impossible, the Beasties real talent lies in the effortlessness of it all.

Some commotion was stirred online when the band released a star-studded, 30+ minute video for “Make Some Noise.”  If you haven’t seen it I urge you to go watch it on Youtube.  The music video, which helped launched the Beasties career, may be dead but they band managed to revive it by bringing their A-list talent and some A-list friends.

The album features a few obligatory rap-cameos from Nas (who appears on the albums other single “Too Many Rappers”) and newbie it-girl Santigold on the dub-tastic “Don’t Play No Games That I Can’t Win.”  The former being a call to arms against the seemingly endless tide of pedestrian rappers clogging up the airwaves. The song, done by anyone else, would seem like another bragging session but the Beasties Boys can actually back up the fact that they’re the best because they are.  And the sentiment that the majority of the rap game is full of posers may not be exactly new, but it’s extra damming coming from the Godfathers of rap.  To all young rappers: you’ve been put on notice.

“Don’t Play No Games That I Can’t Win” meanwhile sounds like something from a later-period Gorillaz album.  Thick with horns and a thumping reggae-like beat it follows a recent trend in rap music where a guest-star takes center stage.   The song is good, but I mention it because it’s a very modern track, suggesting that the Beasties haven’t been just sitting on their laurels but have actually been paying attention to modern music.  I also think it’s interesting that they’d give so much space on their album to someone not in the band.

In general, I’d say that HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE PART TWO is fantastically textured, and it’s songs like “Don’t Play No Games That I Can’t Win” that help give the album that varied feel.  The instrumental track, “Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament” is another stand out that adds a nice bit of “otherness” to the album that elevates HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE to a higher plane of awesome.

My favorite track, “Lee Majors Comes Again” appears toward the end of the album and kills me every time I hear it. It’s vintage Beastie Boys with a killer guitar riff played over a nice synth bed topped with a frothy vocal hook.  For me, the song really showcases what’s so great about the Beastie Boys in that, it’s the perfect blend of genres rock and rap.

HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE PART TWO came about back in April and I’m still listening to it.  In 2011 that’s a pretty powerful statement.  Aging like a fine wine is a bit of a cliche, but that’s just what the Beastie Boys are doing. The fact that I want “Make Some Noise” my ringtone is pretty telling.  My personal theory on why the band is still good has to do with their sense of humor.  The Beasties have cultivated a foot-loose-and-fancy-free “party” attitude, but more than that they’ve never taken themselves too seriously.  I think a strong work ethic and immense pool of talent certainly helps, but I also think simply having fun is important.  HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE PART TWO is  “fun” to listen to.  As I think back on all the songs I’ve listened to this year, I can’t think of very many that were fun.  With war, recession, and unemployment dominating the headlines this year it’s nice that the Beastie Boys have provided us with an escape.

HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE PART TWO gets a (belated) “A-“

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