NOTE: Although several artists have mentioned The Monkees as inspirations for their own musical careers, there have been only a few albums which have paid tribute to their musical legacy. Of these, some are legitimate, some are blatant rip-offs, and some are just plain... weird. Hopefully this guide will help you find those diamonds amid the dross.
Stu Phillips Presents The Monkees Songbook Played By The Golden Gate Strings
Epic BN 26248 [LP];
REVIEW: Stu Phillips was the producer of one of my uh, "favorite" instrumental tribute albums, dedicated to the music of The Beach Boys, but on this platter, devoted to the then-red hot Monkees phenomenon, he's only 'presenting' the album, and has nothing to do with the arrangements or conducting chores, which he leaves to a trio of sports: Sid Feller, Ernie Freeman, and Lincoln Mayorga. The album doesn't start off very promisingly, with hot single "Last Train To Clarksville" awash in shrill strings and perky pluckings which pretty much tell you right off that this album is targeted towards the blue-haired crowd. "She" is next, with the rock 'n' roll heart pretty much ripped whole from its chest and leaving the listener with an oom-pah-pah chorus which would feel right at home at a polka party. Woo-hoo. The light country twang of "This Just Doesn't Seem To Be My Day" is paraded as a high-stepping cake-walk number, (you can almost see the frilly hoop skirts and laced up boots cavorting around the floor) Ugh. "I Wanna Be Free" fares somewhat better, if anything, it's even more syrupy than Davy Jones' original, with oh-so-sweet strings floating above... uh, well, more strings! And what about the proto-punk of "Mary, Mary"? Actually, it's pretty cool, with low brass and woodwinds churned out in a spy-jazz arrangement that leaves the strings floating in a high, nervous sigh in the background. The darker color in the arrangement is a welcome release from the icky sweetness of what's come before.
Side Two starts off with "I'm A Believer" and stays somewhat close to the original track in it's arrangement, which is a plus, but still comes off as rock-lobotomized. "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone" is much better, with another darkly-hued, moody arrangement which is interesting and much cooler than previous efforts. "Saturday's Child" receives a similarly rich setting with brass and strings trading off admirably in a complex harmonic array. "Auntie Grizelda" somehow made the cut of songs here, and whereas on the Monkees platter it comes off as quirky and more than a little dark, here it's turned into a turgid melodic dirge that shows off how tepid the original composition is. The album closes with "(Theme From) The Monkees" which is OK in its setup, but then the gloppy strings take over again, and the song is pretty much ruined. In sum, a couple of minor accomplishments here, but the album is filled with mostly uninspired hack-work.
The Manhattan Strings play instrumental versions of hits made famous by The Monkees
Tower Records T 5067 [LP];
REVIEW: It can be hard for hard-core fans to admit it, but in the beginning, The Monkees were ALL about product. Making money. And despite the influence they've since had on everything from television to music videos to pop music, it's pretty clear that the studio heads simply wanted to make as much moolah as possible, and so we have not one, but TWO instrumental albums from 1967 filled with Monkees merchandising tie-ins. Here, Mike Curb produces The Manhattan Strings in an entirely forgettable disc of elevator music. Arranger and Conductor Bob Summers takes the rock 'n' roll rhythms and stamps every arrangement with the same four-square, oom-pah-pah rhythm section, leaving the strings to carry the melody in the same, hackneyed rote playing on each and every track. Surer than novocaine, deadlier than arsenic, this sad platter sounds like the poor session players who attended were bored silly, and just gathering their paycheck for this, sensing that the arrangements weren't going to challenge or stimulate them, so they just go through the motions. It's frustrating to know that these albums can rise above their limitations by a talented arrangement, but Bob Summers doesn't have the chops, or the interest in the material to change or experiment with these songs, so they're pretty much rubber-stamped out. Small things jumped out at me while listening: the thick bass guitar used on "Last Train To Clarksville" on side two, also the hard-strummed guitar which takes point on "Steppin' Stone"; but none of these small things can redeem this album, which wallows in its own mediocrity in exactly the opposite way that The Monkees shined on screen and in their recordings. Not recommended.
Here No Evil: A Tribute To The Monkees
Db Records; Long Play 23 [CD];
Released January 13, 1994
REVIEW: It's pretty obvious from reading other reviews that this album is a mixed listening experience. Hits and misses, and perhaps more missed opportunities than was needed. The album begins with Deacon Lunchbox sounding like one of the Sesame Street monsters speaking "The Day We Fall In Love" over some out-of-tune strings. It's not an auspicious opening. The Chant does a straightforward "Take A Giant Step" which feels thinner than the original, and does nothing to reinterpret the song. The Bob Rupe Band follows with a heavy, thudding take of "St. Matthew" which is OK, but lacks the sparkle of Mike Nesmith's own version. Big Fish Ensemble's "Last Train" uses tuba, brass, and a thin string section to re- imagine the hit single as a dixieland dirge, interesting, but again, it doesn't really work for me, sounding more like The Police's histrionic "Mother" than the Monkees. Magnapop reconstructs another pop hit, "Pleasant Valley Sunday" into a decent fuzz-rock song which is the first song which really works for me. Mitch Easter retains the harmonies and feel of "Valleri" which again works mostly because it's a straight-ahead cover that doesn't take any chances with the arrangement. Pat Johnson & Co. create a wonderful, lazy vibe to "The Door Into Summer" undercut only by his somewhat limited vocal work. The Diggers take "Circle Sky" and ramp up the cheese, making it sound not unlike a polka ( ! ), complete with jew's harp, which again, sounds like the artists didn't really "get" the song. Peter Holsapple takes Mike's "You Just Might Be The One" and ramps up the weird, with lots of vocal effects and almost wall-of-soundish distortion which is pretty cool, and makes the song sound new and vital. Anne Richmond Boston keeps the bleak, wintery solitude of "Mr. Webster" and really invests herself in the lyric - a great cover. Doll Squad's take on "Let's Dance On" sounds tossed off and careless in a nicely tuned garage-band attack. Opium Hello sounds very much like Mike Nesmith on their cover of "Sweet Young Thing" which doesn't deviate much from the original. Vulgar Boatmen is cool and clicky on "The Kind of Girl I Could Love" which is so far the best re-thinking of the original song that I've heard. Those Big Belt Buckles ramps up the slide guitars on a genial cover of "What Am I Doin' Hangin' Round?", and Cruisin' sinks their teeth into a chiming, charming "A Little Bit Me...". Live Bait destroys "Randy Scouse Git" however, with a vocal that sounds like a cross between The Simpson's Mr. Burns and Tiny Tim. Larry Joe Miller sounds lazy and uninvolved in "Tomorrow's Gonna Be Another Day" with his band seemingly churning out the track as if they're aching to down their next beer. Boise and Moss (get it?) do a painful cover of "Gonna Buy Me Dog", but Multi-Color House creates a credible soundscape for "You Told Me" while Man Size Job sounds, if anything, more twee on "Daydream Believer" than Davy Jones did. The Flying Subs close out the album with a reverb-drenched instrumental take on "(Theme From) The Monkees", an OK ending to an OK album. I agree with the three star rating given by other reviewers - there are some good covers here, interspersed with some truly talentless artists.
Through The Looking Glass: Indie Pop Plays The Monkees
Planting Seeds Records PSR002 [CD];
Released January 1, 2000
REVIEW: This album, which is available through CDBaby, or as a download album from Amazon.com, is a great little addition to Monkees fans collection, with cool little minatures made of some of the more obscure, as well as a few of the Monkees' biggest hits. All of the tracks are re-made in modes that Mike Nesmith might feel are appropriate, with lots of countified twang to be found on the opening tracks. I adore the squeeky harmonica found on "Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)" and Astropop's sturm and drang cover of "Forget That Girl". But there's also some wonderful psychedelic trance vibes (found on Jumprope's excellent cover of "Don't Call On Me") or pure pop remakes (Marykate O'Neill's sympathetic harmonic reading of "Pleasant Valley Sunday"). In fact, hearing some of these songs makes these well-worn songs brand-new again, and that's probably the best recommendation that I can give this disc. In fact, it's hard to pick out a favorite track, since so many of them are fine, but I can point out Mind Veneration's sensitive "Shades Of Gray" and the whispered opening strains of "The Porpoise Song" as versions that make me sit up and listen. The album carries it's own sense of humor about it as well, with the "Mid-Fidelity Stereo" label prominently lampooned on the cover, and the faces of rapturous females swooning photographed showing that the album's producers had their heads screwed on slightly crooked in putting this together. A great album, and a fine way to hear these anthems in a whole new light.
Papa Nez: A Loose Salute To The Work Of Michael Nesmith
Midwest Artists Distribution 15 [CD];
Released March 24, 2001
REVIEW: Mike Nesmith has undoubtedly the most diverse, artistically satisfying musical heritage of any of The Monkees, and in his own way, he pioneered alt-country rock, and left his stamp on many, many up-and-coming artists who synthesized his music into the mainstream scene. On this fantastically varied and rewarding CD, several artists from off the beaten track take "Papa Nez's" songs and rework them in vibrant, rewarding ways. From Sixty Acres jangly "Nine Times Blue" to Buddy Woodward's powerhouse take on "You Told Me" to Frog Holler's introspective "Different Drum", it's clear that the artists here not only feel a deep connection to the songs, but have an intuitive understanding of how to interpret them. Slide guitar, Dobro, banjo and several other organic treatments grace these songs, as well as rich harmonies. Each song receives a richly thick production, and despite my not having heard of ANY of these artists, the talent here is all top-of-the-line Nashville-brand quality. Favorites include a Spector-like girl-group take on "Magic," a shimmering quality on "You Just May Be The One" by John Jorgenson, and the sticky guitar work on "Sunny Girlfriend". True, some of the vocal qualities aren't my cup of tea, (Jamie Holliday's straining "Daily Nightly" springs to mind) but the professionalism, love and sense of fun that most of these artists bring to the plate are stunning. What manages to shine through the music and the artists' various interpretations are the deft and intelligent lyrics of each song. The artists seem to know that these songs are carefully crafted, and easily sink their teeth into each two-and-a-half minute gem. While this disc may be a bit too twangy for lovers of the Monkees carefully crafted pop-rock, those who enjoy a heavy helping of country in their CD players will find a lot to enjoy here.
'Studio 99' Perform A Tribute To The Monkees
Going For A Song [CD];
Released February 7, 2006
REVIEW: Oh, the legion of horror which is Studio 99! They churn out "tribute" albums like flapjacks, and in the process, accomplish two things: first they sully the accomplishments of the original artists, and second, they bilk the public out of thousands of dollars by tricking them into thinking these discs have the original artists on them. Their 'tribute' to the Monkees is another nail in their self-made coffins of artistic integrity. Rather than hire a band that can do competent covers of these songs, Studio 99 has gone out and recruited some hackneyed singer with a thick Manchester accent (the better to imitate Davy Jones by!) and let him loose to whine and shriek his way through all 14 of these Monkees hits. I don't think I've ever heard anything quite as painful as the singer's attempt to muscle into a higher register during "I'm A Believer" or warble his way like a prissy elf on "I Wanna Be Free". The album as a listening experience is very much like hearing Davy Jones on a bender at Disneyland. Not to mention the fidelity of the recordings is very thin and workman-like, with none of the almost indefinable electricity or joy which the original recordings have. These are very much recordings made as 'product' and feel cold and detached. Again, this album is available as an mp3 download at Amazon.com, or you can probably find multiple copies in a landfill near you.
Garage Band Tribute To The Monkees
Collectables Records [CD];
Released November 1, 2011
REVIEW: I don't know what you think of when you hear the term "garage band" but, to my mind, it conjures up images of teenage friends who literally throw together a rag-tag ensemble with dreams of fame and fortune rattling around in their greasy heads. Limited power chords, ragged playing, and lots of attitude make up most of their charm. This CD is NOT those kinds of groups, which to my mind, makes the title more than a little misleading; rather than youth and energy, what Collectables Records has served up is something from the other side of the performance spectrum - old hands, veterans of the fringe music scene, who are cutting these records in their homes as vanity projects, solo outings, and loving homages to their influences. So in place of punkish rave-ups, we have Mitch Schecter (of Sixties band The Rip Chords) serving up faithful, competent covers of "You Told Me" and "Love Is Only Sleeping", and Tommy Frenzy (of the Tuff Darts!) giving a solo multi-tracked take of "Valleri". Most of what is here is clean, mannered, and safe, with only a couple of tracks (the countrified "What Am I Don' Hangin' Round?" and re-imagined "Daydream Believer") taking any chances with the originals. Not that this is a bad record, I think that most Monkees fans will find it pleasant, but forgettable. I would rather have heard REAL garage bands, with all their young fire and limitations, tackle these songs, which would have been truer to the young spirit of the originals.
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