This week was a lighter release week than usual, probably because of the Memorial Day weekend. Still, we have reviews for the new star-studded album by the Monkees, who are about to celebrate their 50th anniversary, the newest album by Beth Orton and the latest project from Dum Dum Girls’ Dee Dee, who now records synth-pop as Kristin Kontrol.
The Monkees’ “Good Times!” ****
It may be true that the Monkees began as a manufactured band, created for a sitcom, but undoubtedly, their stack of impressive hit singles and the fact that they are still around fifty years later indicates that they deserve much more respect than they are often given.
“Good Times!” is a fascinating record. Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz each put in a track they penned for the group, but the bulk of this album is written by newer stars that obviously grew up as Monkees fans. Rivers Cuomo of Weezer wrote the punchy, “She Makes Me Laugh,” while Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie hands in the magnificent “Me & Magdalena,” while the excellent and unlikely duo of Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller deliver the tremendously psychedelic, “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster.” XTC’s Andy Partridge pens “You Bring The Summer.”
Adam Schlesinger of Fountains Of Wayne and Ivy fame handled production on this set and also hands in the very Wayne-esque “Our Own World.” In addition, a lot of these tracks feature three-fourths of Fountains Of Wayne filling out the backing band at various points.
Some older tracks get some touch-ups. The Neil Diamond-penned “Love To Love” gets a new sheen so that the late Davy Jones gets a chance to appear beside his bandmates, and the title track is built around an impressive Harry Nilsson demo and converted into a call-and-response duet with Dolenz. Songs written by Carole King & Gerry Goffin and Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart are also on the set, thus drawing a clear line from the band’s original hit-streak.
This is a truly impressive record. It deserves all the hype. Not only does this album show the immense level of the Monkees’ influence, but unlike most of the band’s albums released after the show, this one builds effectively on their legacy, standing among their best work. Dolenz, Tork and Nesmith are all in their 70s, but this album is delivered with the same youthful enthusiasm that fueled their '60s hits.
To those who have undervalued the Monkees over the years, in many ways, this set’s mere existence and its high level of quality should serve as a redemption of sorts. For those of us who grew up listening to the Monkees, this just confirms what we already knew. The Monkees became a real band and were struggling to show their skills during the show’s run.
In the end, “Good Times!” is a remarkably timeless and enjoyable collection. This is mandatory listening for any Monkees fan.
“Me & Magdalena” In the liner notes, Ben Gibbard calls writing a song for the Monkees, “the greatest honor of (his) career” and that love really shows in this tender ballad which showcases some excellent harmonizing between Nesmith and Dolenz. If you get the deluxe version of the album, you get a more upbeat rendition as well. Truth be told, even by today’s standards, this should be a monster hit song and should be added immediately to any Monkees best-of collections in the future. It really is one for the ages.
“Birth Of An Accidental Hipster” This Gallagher/Weller piece works so well because it merges the psychedelic edges of “Porpoise Song (Theme From ‘Head’)” with the post-vaudeville romp on “Randy Scouse Git.” Essentially, it sounds like a vintage Monkees song.
“Little Girl” According to the liner notes, Tork wrote this years ago for Davy Jones to sing. Here, Tork delivers the song with real care, making it the best song on the set to be written by one of the group’s members, ever so slightly edging out Nesmith’s excellent, contemplatively Brian Wilson-esque, “I Know What I Know.”
Beth Orton “Kidsticks” ****
Beth Orton has always had her feet in two camps. She is a folkie but at the same time she came up in the same scene as the Chemical Brothers. Amazingly, her first album in four years is quite possibly the most overtly club-ready collection in her discography. This album is brimming not only with her signature sense of song-craft but also an occasionally freaky, experimental dance energy.
Orton and her co-writer and co-producer Andrew Hung have created a dynamic, fun record with a great deal of depth. “1973,” for instance, filters an '80s-esque synth energy through a post-rave-come-down lens, whereas “Petals” begins as a reggae-like, pseudo-dub-step exercise before climaxing with a guitar freak-out.
“Kidsticks” as an album sounds like it was created for a utopian dream-world. Each one of these ten songs feels like it glows. This is true even in ballad-mode. “Dawnstar” almost verges on dream-pop and begs to be used in a Sofia Coppola film.
Considering the downbeat, acoustic feel of Orton’s last record, “Sugaring Season,” this album is like a rousing wake-up call. This is a record that deserves a lot of heavy-duty mainstream attention on both sides of the pond.
“1973” This is a chilled sugar-rush of a song, if you can imagine such a combination. Yes, this song sounds quite far away from the sensibilities of the year of its title, but it is a winner all the way through to its core.
“Moon” This sounds like a more traditional Orton single. This song would have fit well on 1996’s “Trailer Park” or 1999’s “Central Reservation,” even if the electronics sound a bit more modern.
“Flesh And Blood” This song should please Orton fans of all kinds. It has an electro-bounce, but at the same time it shows the same kind of song-level focus as her classic “Concrete Sky."
Kristin Kontrol’s “X-Communicate” ****
Kristin Kontrol is the new pseudonym for Dum Dem Girls’ “Dee Dee,” aka Kristin Welchez. Dum Dum Girls began as a lo-fi solo project before morphing into a full band and finding increased sonic clarity with each release. Welchez released a string of truly impressive Dum Dum Girls collections. Interestingly, her transition into Kristin Kontrol isn’t such a surprise. “X-Communicate” is an '80s-style beach-party-ready collection that doesn’t seem all that distantly removed from where Welchez was headed on the last Dum Dum Girls album, “Too True.”
The fact that the opening song, “Show Me” plays like a reworking of the Dum Dum Girls standout “Lord Knows” should be a comfort. This is a pop record, but as the dance-rock of “White Street” indicates, it is a guitar-safe pop record, mining similar territory to Sky Ferreira’s 2013 album “Night Time, My Time.” While the title track is a Madonna-esque club-ready number about a breakup, it still has a bit of an alternative drive as if informed by bands like New Order and Love & Rockets.
If this album is simply Welchez’s attempt to go pop and get more attention, it should work. This is not a mere sell-out record. It just shows her music going in a different and more mainstream direction. In other words, if “X-Communicate” gets the pop radio attention it deserves, that is pop radio’s gain. For the last seven years at least, she has been one of the strongest writers working in indie-rock. It’s time for her close-up.
“Face 2 Face” This is the most experimental and interesting sounding track on the record, with its crashing beat and its bounding melody. In 1986, this would have been all over MTV. There’s even kind of a sultry, electro. Prince-like energy here. (Even in the title!)
“What Is Love” Welchez has always been one for ballads. Dum Dum Girls had three standouts with “Rest Of Our Lives,” “Coming Down” and “Trouble Is My Name.” If radio programmers are paying attention, this is a pop-smash in the making and a fitting follow-up to the tracks I have listed.
“Show Me” I loved “Lord Knows.” This is like that song’s sax-soaked fraternal twin. If you know your rock history, you’ll know that bands used to make other songs from similar backing tracks all the time. For instance, Tommy James and the Shondells famously created their single “Mirage” using the backwards tracks of their bigger hit, “I Think We’re Alone Now.”
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