NOTE: After leaving RCA, Mike began to branch out in far-reaching, unexpected ways, with his experiments in multi-media presentation closely tied to the music he was making. In that sense, his music becomes more challenging, more visual, and for the modern public, both more and less accessable. Mike's initial success with using music videos to promote his music led to more video releases, and less music output as the years progressed, but the music that has been released has been interesting, creative, and never less than prototypical Nez. There have also been fine live concerts released, documenting the rare Nesmith on the road.
Nesmith Solo Albums II
The Prison (1974)
Pacific Arts 7-101 [LP], 2009 [CD]
REVIEW: The Prison was Mike's most daring production yet, a soundtrack to a book that tackled existential and metaphorical problems, in what Mike hoped would create a unique synthesis between the music and words in the readers mind - a completely new art form. Now, I often listen to music when I read, and have found that it needs to be fairly unintrusive to act as a soundtrack to what I'm reading. The Prison doesn't work well in that respect, with the music demanding attention, but as an individual album it succeeds as an experimental piece. The music for The Prison is completely new territory for Mike, an aural soundscape far removed from the country-space folk/rock he had been cultivating for the last several years. The opening track, "Life, The Unsuspecting Captive" is a swirl of hazy synthesizers and Mike singing his metaphysical lyrics about life and rebirth. It crescendos into an epic statement from a man who was generally more comfortable singing about simpler emotions. The songs melt into each other, with "Dance Between The Raindrops" picking up the tempo a bit and acoustic guitar and light drumming gradually intruding upon the readers' consciousness. "Elusive Ragings" has a nice cascading pattern in the arrangement and a return to the country-rock stylings that Mike has so much affinity for. The next track, "Waking Mystery" is a slow, hypnotic instrumental with Mike chanting words like "Awake", "Behold" and singing short phrases, all awash in a bed of sythesizer strings. The entire album is of a piece in mood and message, and although it feels less vital and more muted than previous Nez albums, it invites listening to. "Hear Me Calling" continues with slow country shuffle and etherial whistling provided by Mike, while "Marie's Theme" carries a buzzing bass line into a nice mid-tempo rocker accompanied by strummed guitar. The album finishes with the subtle, serene "Closing Theme" which acts as a poetic benediction. The Prison is available separately, or paired with it's sequel The Garden.
From A Radio Engine To The Proton Wing (1977)
Pacific Arts 7-107 [LP], 2008 [CD]
REVIEW: Nez's first album in three years marked a sea change for him, and for how he presented his music, with album's lead-off track "Rio" becoming the forebearer of the music video revolution, and the sound of the album moving away from pure country rock and into the pop arena, while retaining Mike's laid-back interpretive gifts. Synthesizers and drums figure more prominently in "Rio", mirroring the prevalent disco trend at the time, with female back-up singers making a first-ever appearance (don't much care for them myself). There are echoes of John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Roads" in the pedal steel rhythms of "Casablanca Moonlight", and Jamaican flavor runs through the easy flowing "More Than We Imagine"; and there's a updated modern "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds" vibe that rolls through the languid "Navajo Trail", with it's campfire ambiance. "We Are Awake" is easily the best track on the album, with it's roots-rock sensibilities grounded in a silky, muscular arrangement that almost overshadows the singer. It's a mesmerizing song, and a great new sound for Papa Nez, which unfortunately he doesn't explore further here. "Wisdom Has It's Way" is a nod backwards to his country-rock roots, with a great hook on the chorus and intuitive, wise lyrics. "Love's First Kiss" is another great track, with soaring falsetto on the chorus and pedal steel guitar making an unusually potent appearance. The album closes with the strangely out-of-place orchestral interludes from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker which leads into the final "The Other Room". Overall the album feels less cohesive than his other albums, and despite several strong songs, the hybridization between his country roots and more modern elements doesn't mesh well; but it makes for interesting listening. The only Nez album which his website currently doesn't offer.
Live At The Palais (1978)
Pacific Arts 7-118 [LP], 1003 [CD]
REVIEW: Mike's first official live album was a fantastic overview of Mike's career thus far, and a real treasure for fans who had been longing to hear him perform these songs in a concert setting. Beginning with a hard-driving "Grand Ennui", the show literally grabs you by the throat with its pounding drums and electric guitars. "Calico Girlfriend" follows, sounding much more vital and alive than it did in its studio incarnation. But all the tracks come to life in this concert - it's a shame that Mike hasn't taken more opportunities to perform his music live, since so much of it is electrifying when performed in front of an audience. The songs sound more mature, with a heft and power that makes them sound new. "Propinquity" has a drive and thrust here that it hasn't had before, and "Joanne" feels better delineated with the pedal steel guitar gaining prominence over the heart-felt lyric and smooth falsetto leaps of Mike. "Roll With The Flow" becomes a southern-fried roots rocker, on fire with Mike's forceful delivery. One of my favorite Mike song's "Some Of Shelly's Blues" is remade here as a more muscular power-ballad, which loses some steam in the spaces between the drum beat and guitar licks, but "Silver Moon" shimmers with lovely interplay between the sighing pedal steel and Mike's voice, and the original album closes with a tear-em-up 50's-style stomper "Nadine (Is It You)" in which Nez gets to show off his impressive solo guitar chops. The CD reissue of this album tacks on another four tracks taken from a 1981 Austin, Texas show, and so we have a second version of "Grand Ennui", which has an even heavier, blues-rock arrangement and lyrics bitten off in fine staccato style by Mike. A rare live capture of the jazzy "Capsule" is also here, and the CD closes with two Monkees-era songs, taken from a 1995 Gretch Guitars-sponsored concert, "Crippled Lion" which sounds somewhat ragged to my ears, and a honky-tonk update of "Listen To Band". An absolutely fantastic concert CD, and essential to fans of Mike.
Infinite Rider On The Big Dogma (1979)
Pacific Arts 7-130 [LP], Rio 2006 [CD]
REVIEW: An amazing album - one where Mike pushes himself into so many various directions, you think he's going to self-immolate. The album roars out of the starting gate with the hard-rock (!) of "Dance" and slips into a sweet 50's doo-wop groove on "Magic" with a falsetto lead from Mike aping (no pun intended) Frankie Lymon, and the song itself is a canny recreation of not only the sound, but the innocence of 1950's love songs. "Tonight" is a fantastic rhythm and blues-meet-Louisiana Creole blend, spicy and rambunctious - it sounds like nothing Mike has ever done before, and yet sounds like nobody else - it's a wonderful transformative moment. "Flying" continues the strong polymorphic rhythms and melodic song-craft that are the hallmarks of this album, while "Carioca" brings down the lights in a trance-like arrangement and melody that grows upon me with every listening. "Cruisin' (Lucy and Ramona and Sunset Sam)" has a synth bass line that immedately dates the number, but gives the song an urban groove that's very catchy. "Factions" brings in screaming guitars and a strong rock thump to this story-song about a rock 'n' roll girl - it's a less interesting song than what's come before, but is followed by the fantastic "Light", a moody, pseudo-psychedelic throwback paired with a slick modern groove, and puncuated with Mike's still-amazing falsetto jumps. The album picks up with the hot bar-room jumper "Horserace" where Mike finds his sense of humor again, and has fun growling out the lyric. The album closes with the tropical rhythms of "Capsule" - a fantastically fun track, one for the dance clubs. What's so amazing about this album is thoroughly Mike reinvents his sound - he abandons his much loved country sound entirely, but sound completely comfortable in this pop/rock arena. It's a startling transformation, but Mike emerges a phoenix, rather than a moth. A fine first choice for people wary of dipping their toes into Mike's country albums. Several songs on this album made it onto the prophetic Elephant Parts video, which presaged MTV and helped usher Mike more fully into the music video business.
Timerider: The Adventure Of Lyle Swann [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack] (1983) Rio 75282 [CD] Released 2000
REVIEW: Although the score to Timerider was written by Nesmith and released with the film in 1983, it wasn't until seventeen years later that the soundtrack album finally made it's stand-alone debut on CD. The movie, which is low-grade time-travel entry about a motorcyclist who suddenly finds himself transported to the old west, along with his motorcycle, is given a muscular, rock-driven instrumental score, heavy with synthesizers, drum machines, and squealing guitars. While Mike tries to make each piece a tone-poem of sorts, it all sounds incredibly dated now, with the ever-prevalent synthesizers sounding completely incongruous in the 1877 California setting, and Nesmith failing to develop a memorable theme for the characters, with only the melody to "Scared To Death", with it's clip-clop rhythm and moody electric guitar melody, and the clink and rattle of "Dead Man's Duds" sticking out from the pack of power chords and repetitive motifs. It's generic action music that would fit in most any film from the early eighties, with the exception that Mike's penchant for country-western trappings which occasionally rears it's head in a pedal slide guitar, or other western-style twang - but to truly serve the picture, it would have been better if Mike had gone back to his accoustic folk/country roots to portray the old west and left his Moog and drum machine at home.
The Newer Stuff (1989)
Rhino R1-70168 [LP], R2-70168 [CD]
REVIEW: After the groundbreaking success of Infinite Rider, it was a discouraging ten years before any new material was released to Mike's listeners, and this album, put out by Rhino, was more a compilation with some rare tidbits thrown in for purchasers than what folks really hankered for: more Mike Music! As a greatest hits compilation, The Newer Stuff is exactly what it claims to be - a post RCA road trip through Mike's two studio albums, with extra material culled from Elephant Parts and other video projects. Nothing is taken from The Prisoner, or Live At The Palais, but here is where you'll find Mike's odd, declaratory "Total Control" song, with it's bouncy synthesized music at odds with its totalitarian message - perhaps it's meant to be ironic, but the humor isn't apparent, or perhaps the joke is just not that funny. The catchy and memorable "Tanya" is here with it's poetic lyrics, and "I'll Remember You" is a reverent homage to old movie musicals of the 1940's, and John Lennon, but is saddled with a dull, repetitive chorus. "Formosa Diner" could have been taken from Infinite Rider, with it's dark, R&B call-and-response setting making this song a memorable listen. "Eldorado To The Moon" is a strange steel-drum setting for a interstellar travel song ('space cowboy' indeed!). "Chow Mein and Bowling" is the funnest song here, with it's 1920's melody and trippy lyrics marking it as classic Nez. The rest of the tracks, taken from Infinite Rider... and Radio Engine... are good, but most of the album's new tracks feel like leftovers. Nevertheless, with a half-dozen songs unavailable elsewhere, it's an essential purchase for Nez completists.
Tropical Campfires (1992)
Pacific Arts 5000 [CD]
REVIEW: Mike's first proper album since 1979 was hotly anticipated release by his fans, and did not disappoint upon its release. A return to his accoustic roots, Tropical Campfires finds Mike in fine voice and fine company. The songs are varied, from the gentle opening drowse "Yellow Butterfly" which perfectly captures the light, floating feel of the subject, while "Laugh Kills Lonesome" is a carefree tropical groove laid atop a sharp melody and incisive lyrics. "Moon Over The Rio Grande" has gorgeous harmonies and a prototypical country-twang feel to it that's pure Nez. Next follows the supremely gentle and lush "One" and the simple, lovely "Juliana", which is far and away the most beautiful ballad Mike has ever written, with just his voice, guitar and pedal steel making their presence felt in the verses, and the chorus erupting into shimmering harmonies - it's enough to give me chills each time I hear it. He launches into a Spanish-language cover of "Aquarela Do Brasil" which is easy and free in its rhythms and singing, less successful is the cover of "In The Still Of The Night" which Mike sings in his lower register, and compared to what's come before, it drones on. "Rising In Love" in an adventurous mid-tempo anthem about the joys of falling (rising) in love. For some reason, Mike chose to cover another old standard, Cole Porter's "Begin The Beguine", but this cover is fresh and new with Mike's latin rhythms, and it fits right in with the rest of the album. The slick spoken-word intro of "I Am Not That" is carried along with a tight, propulsive track and a catchy, sing-along chorus. Mike indulges in Hawaiian moods in "...For The Island"; a world-conscious anthem, and "Twilight On The Trail" returns to old-school western balladry, and seems to be saying goodbye to his fans - 'until we meet again'. The only reason this album doesn't rate higher with me is since it all sounds so familiar and comfortable for Mike; in the past he's been able to surprise me, but here it sounds like he's playing it safe, with genres and styles that he's used before. But it's all to the good, and Mike has never sounded better, or more content.
The Garden (1994)
Rio 2001 [CD]
REVIEW: The Garden, a conceptual and thematic follow-up to 1974s The Prison, won Mike a Grammy Award for "Best New-Age Album" of 1994, and one listen will tell you why - it's a gorgeous, layered soundscape of moods and moments that haunt the listener for a long time after it's over. It takes the same concept, that of being the "soundtrack" to an accompanying booklet, but as a soundtrack, it works, since the solo vocals have been pared back and replaced with lush harmonies and almost wordless phrases that melt perfectly into the instrumentals. Add to that the presence of his children, whose voices add a measure of sweetness to the already sweet sound, and you have a sweeping aural picture. It's difficult to describe individual tracks, since the sound of each track is so layered and unique; Mike claims that he was surprised to be nominated in the 'New Age' category at the Grammys, but this album is so diverse that it could hardly fit in any other defined category - you have oboe and guitar criss-crossing in "City" and hints of Japanese music in "Hills Of Time" - gentle piano power chords with celtic pipes and percussion in "Flowers Dancing" and Middle-Eastern flavoring on "Wisteria" - all of it infused with a gentle Western influence that's the only clue that this music could possibly be from Mike Nesmith. Mike's voice comes through on the last track in the chant-like "Life Becoming" which again is lovely free-form poetry. Each track ebbs and flows into different moods and rhythms, changing like the tides, it's another suprising change of pace for Mike: subtler, more engrossing, and more engaging than The Prison, it reveals how much Mike has grown musically as a solo artist.
Live At The Britt Festival (1999)
Cooking Vinyl 129 [CD];
Video Ranch 1002 [CD]
REVIEW: Nesmith's second live album, a 1991 concert from Oregon, is somewhat less of a vital document than his earlier Palias album, and shows a more relaxed Mike easing through a set of pre-and post-Monkees songs. The band, consisting of John Jorgensen on guitar and mandolin, Red Rhodes on pedal steel, Joe Chemay on bass, John Hobbs on piano, and Luis Conte on percussion, is also in the rocking chair mood, with this being the last concert which Red Rhondes played at before his death. The sedate mood of the concert makes it a fine show to listen to in front of an evening fire, but not much here that will light one. Mike's in good form here, with only a little more gruffness in his voice, and perhaps some struggling to reach some of the higher notes, but he still manages to jump easily into his falsetto on "Joanne", and his rougher voice gives more nuanced readings to his songs, from the mini-portraits he paints on "Silver Moon" or give a melancholy dip he gives the lyrics of "Juliana". It's a fine concert, with Mike joking about how "Yellow Butterfly" is about "complex adaptive systems" and other fine, revealing banter thoughout - but the tempos are just a little too drowsy for my tastes; after a few ballads, and mid-tempo songs, I hanker for him too cut loose with "Dance" - or something with more meat in the percussion, even the upbeat "Rising In Love" and "Rio" seem to be taken down a notch or two. Whereas the Palais CD was revelatory in it's urgent tempos and thundering drums, giving the songs a new-cast light, the songs on Britt feel slower, more mellow than what was cut in the studio. Not my first choice for Mike's live sets, but a thicker slice of his solo years, and a gentle document from his '90s show.
Elephant Parts (1981)
Anchor Bay Entertainment;
DVD Released March 18, 2003;
Screenplay by William Dear, Bill Martin, and Michael Nesmith,
Directed by William Dear, 62 min.
REVIEW: Elephant Parts is constantly being touted as the precursor to music videos in general and MTV in particular, but music performance and television have been linked as long as the mediums have existed, and videos to promote certain songs and albums have been around nearly as long; but you don't need to worry about that too much when watching this wacky, entertaining potpourri of music and out-there humor - consisting of short comedy sketches, elaborate music videos, and sly social commentary which still rings fresh. Mike, having a seemingly great time acting the fool again, has never seemed so at ease in front of the camera, whether he's hawking personal nuclear weapons in order to vaporize annoying neighbors, playing the dual roles of fry cook and magical crooner during the music video of "Magic" or attempts to interpret Spanish lyrics in order to impress his date with hysterical results: (..."my wife's biscuits edge closer... no running by the pool..."). What's so impressive about the film is how much of the humor still rings true, from huge cars and gas prices to a wonderully zany Marine Recruitment segment, and the music videos, taking five songs from his recent Infinite Rider On The Big Dogma album, the music and visuals are still striking, with "Rio", "Tonight", "Cruisin" and the previously mentioned "Magic" all being reinterpreted for the screen with impressively humorous and clever results. So while Elephant Parts may not be as revolutionary as Mike intended, it's certainly a richly rewarding project, more tightly focused than the Monkees projects, which weaves together comedy and music into a fine performance. The commentary track recorded by Mike for the DVD reissue is also very funny, with Mike discussing everything and anything that pops into his head with a dry, dead-pan humor.
Michael Nesmith: Live At The Britt (1992)
Anchor Bay Entertainment;
DVD Released March 13, 2001, 85 min.
REVIEW: Live At The Britt has always been less of a favorite to me than his earlier Palias concert, but this is the only place you get to see Mike in concert, with all his quirky humor (especially evident during his trademark "5 Second Concerts"), confident guitar playing, and formidable songwriting prowess in a live setting. Anchor Bay entertainment has shown fine judgement in putting out Nesmith's video excursions, and here they present most of the concert (all that's missing is some jokes Mike told as the video technicians were changing tapes and a segment where Mike is fussing over an out-of-tune guitar) for eighty-five minutes of non-stop Nez, and in Dolby 5.1 surround sound to boot! Mike is unusually laconic during this concert, showcasing ballad after ballad, or numbers that seem to be taken at a more leisurely tempo than their studio incarnations, with "Two Different Roads", "Papa Gene's Blues", "Propinquity (I've Just Begun To Care)", "Some of Shelly's Blues" and "Joanne" all receiving introspective readings which are interesting to hear them interpreted so well by an older and wiser Mike, but at the same time, the flow of the evening seems to be stuck in a rut, with little in the music or rhythms changing from song to song. But Mike is genial and in a good mood throughout the night, giving brief introductions to some of the numbers, and obviously having a good time in front of the receptive audience. Still - it's a relief when the pace picks up with the fine "Laugh Kills Lonesome" and the popular "Rio", and the audience is especially thrilled when Mike covers his hit for Linda Rondstadt "Different Drum". A pleasant evening, but I would've preferred a few more barn-burners.
Rio Records/VideoRanch 100057 [CD];
Download Available January 10, 2006, CD Released April 26, 2006
his sixth decade, Michael Nesmith shows no sign of
mellowing, or attempting to "fit in" to popular
culture. His long awaited album, Rays,
only highlights both the extraordinary creativity and
frustrating arrogance that Mike is famous for.
Mike had the incredible chutzpah to offer this album
at first in miniscule runs of only 100, and charging a
ridiculous $100 a pop for them! (Sorry, Mike, I
don't subscribe P.T. Barnum's infamous homily of human
nature). Ostensibly an album celebrating 1950s car
culture, Nez is far more interested in using this as a
jumping off point for his own sonic tapestries, with
songs that evoke both spy jazz (the synth-heavy
lead-off track "Zip Ribbon"), Rose-Colored-Glasses
nostalgia (the vaguely vibe-driven "Ed's October
Cafe"), goofy "Leave It To Beaver" soundscapes
("Carhop") and typically impenetrable lyrics (the
lovely "Follows The Heart"). The biggest fault
by far on this otherwise adventurous album is Mike's
overweening use of sythesizers on every track; for
some reason, Nez has decided that organic instruments
are passe, and he slathers every song here with heavy,
intrusive electronic sounds that immediately bring to
mind some of Pete Townshend's more incoherant studio
noodlings. In fact, Rays is most
closely akin to Townshend's series of demo releases,
entitled Scooped, which have the same sort
of rough, in-the-works feel that much of Rays does,
tied together with Nez's indulgent musicality.
The only time the album really breaks through into
greatness is when he abandons the synths, as on the
pile-driving "Best Of It" which comes spiced with a
hot brass section, or when Mike decides to actually
open his mouth and sing (the afore-mentioned ("Follows
The Heart" and the groovy title track). Mike's
voice remains as distinctive and compelling as ever,
but his lyrics are often unfocused and lack the
cynical bite which his earlier works did. Rays
will undoubtedly please fans who've been hoping for
anything from Mike, but this album is far too
self-indulgent and harsh for the general public.
Infinite Tuesday: Autobiographical Riffs - The Music
Rhino Records [CD];
Released April 14, 2017
|This page design and content © 2017 Bret Wheadon|