The Monkees, Eric Clapton are here

By Tom Von Malder | Jun 01, 2016
Photo by: Rhino Records The cover of the first Monkees album in 20 years.

Owls Head — The Monkees: Good Times! (Rhino CD, 36:47). It has been almost 20 years since The Monkees' last new album, but "Good Times!," tied to the group's 50th anniversary, is a true celebration. Aided by some of pop's most creative voices, the three surviving members -- Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork -- have buried whatever differences they have had and made a truly sunny summer album. Songwriter Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, co-produced the album and plays on nine of the 13 tracks. He also contributes a song, as do Weezer's Rivers Cuomo, XTC's Andy Partridge, Death Cab For Cutie's Ben Gibbard and the duo of Oasis' Noel Gallagher and The Jam/Style Council's Paul Weller.

Three of the songs were originally written for the group and recording them started in 1967, but were never finished nor released. Through the miracles of modern recording, two who have passed on are contributors to the album. One is group member Davy Jones, who sings lead on Neil Diamond's "Love To Love" (and demonstrates how much we miss his voice on the rest of the album). The other is the late Harry Nilsson, who sings and plays piano on the title track, with the other vocal being by Dolenz. Both songs are great, as is half of the album. The third song from 1967 is the rocker, "Gotta Give It Time."

Other highlights, and should-be hits, are Partridge's "You Bring the Sumer," which turns into a bit of psychedelic pop at the end; the glorious "She Makes Me Laugh" by Cuomo; the rocker "Our Own World" by Schlesinger (on various tracks, he plays guitar, bass, piano, keyboards, chamberlain and drums); and the heavier "Birth of an Accidental Hipster" by Gallagher/Weller. Another frequent contributor is guitarist Mike Viola (Candy Butchers; film "That Thing That You Do"), who appears on seven tracks. Gibbard's "Me & Magdalena" is slower and more contemplative, while the classic Monkees' sound is heard on "Whatever's Right," which figures, as it was written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who, back in the day, wrote about 30 songs for The Monkees, including the hits "Last Train to Clarksville," "The Monkees Theme," "I'm Not Your Steppin' Stone" and "Valleri."

Each of the three surviving group members also contributes a solo recording to the album, as the only common thread on the three recordings is Schlesinger, playing piano and/or bass. In fact, Schlesinger co-wrote the Beatlesque "I Was There (And I'm Told I Had a Good Time)" with Dolenz. Nesmith's contribution is the piano song, "I Know What I Know." Weakest of the three is Tork's "Little Girl," a track he first worked on in 1968. In other Monkees news, all 58 episodes of their TV show and the film "Head" will be released on Blu-ray June 24 and the band's 50th Anniversary Tour will come as close as the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom in New Hampshire on July 16. Grade: A-

Eric Clapton: I Still Do (Bushbranch/Surfdog CD, 54:16). When Clapton issued "Old Sock" in 2013, there was a sense that the former guitar god was nearing retirement. He has given us a solid album in "I Still Do," but I have read that he is displeased with not being able to play the guitar as he used to, and that this could be his last album. As usual, the album, his 23rd studio album, includes covers of classic blues, tunes by his friends (like the late J.J. Cale) and some new songs. Helping re-light the fire in Clapton is the return of producer Glyn Johns after decades. Jones produced Clapton's  1977 classic LP, "Slowhand."

For vintage blues, there is the stately opener of Leroy Carr's "Alabama Woman Blues" from 1930, with Louisiana-tinged accordion. Also from the 1930s is "Little Man, You've Had a Busy Day," done as a touching lullaby. Blues with piano and accordion is featured on a cover of Skip Jones' "Cyprus Grove," with Clapton's voice gruffer, and he goes to the source well for Robert Johnson's "Stones in My Passway," which is more of the classic Clapton sound. From Cale's vast catalogue, Clapton chooses "Can't Let You Do It" (it is bouncy, like "Superstition") and "Somebody's Knockin'," which features a piano-led break and then nice guitar on the second break.

One of Clapton's dead friends -- I'm sensing a theme here -- apparently sings and plays acoustic guitar on the gentle pop of "I Will Be There," as the musician is credited as Angelo Mysterioso. That is the same name the late George Harrison used for a credit when he co-wrote and performed on the song "Badge" for the 1969 Cream album, "Goodbye." Another nod to the past is the cover illustration of Clapton by Sir Peter Blake, who contributed to the design of the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album.

Clapton offers two originals. "Spiral," written with Andy Fairweather Low and Simon Climie, nods slightly to Cream and Clapton's guitar smolders. A telling line is: "You don't know how much it means to have the music in me." Clapton also wrote "Catch the Blues," which is a vocal duet that glides. Much sharper is his cover of Bob Dylan's "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine," which has fine drumming, some harmonica and a feel as if he were playing with The Band, who famously backed Dylan on the "Basement Tapes." Also nice is Clapton's version of the traditional "I'll Be Alright," with a small backing choir. Grade: B+

Bob Dylan: Fallen Angels (Columbia CD, 37:55). This is Dylan's second album in a row, after 2015's "Shadows in the Night," that follows Frank Sinatra through the Great American Songbook, only Dylan brings his unique phrasing, which sometimes evokes a smile, such as the interesting spin put on "Young at Heart." Dylan also did the producing and arranging under his Jack Frost nom de plume. There are no horns, as there were on "Shadows in the Night," but veteran guitarist Dean Parks is onboard, as are the experienced Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball. Plus, Donny Heron uses his steel guitar to add Texas swing to "Young at Heart" and Hawaiian flavor to "Polka Dots and Moonbeams."

Three songs, "Skylark," "That Old Black Magic" and "Come Rain or Come Shine," feature lyrics by the great Johnny Mercer, writing with composer Hoagy Carmichael in the first instance and with Harold Arlen for the other two. "That Old Black Magic," in particular, has a very different arrangement. At times, Dylan's voice seems a bit ragged ("Polka Dots and Moonbeams"), but the musicianship is fine throughout. There is a nice slow take on "Maybe You'll Be There" and nice instrumental beginnings to "Polka Dots" (particularly long) and "Skylark." Dylan performs "It Had To Be You" slow, instead of jaunty, yet, ironically, he is more upbeat on "Melancholy Mood." Overall, this is Dylan's 37th studio album. Grade: B

Candice Night: Starlight Starbright (Minstrel Music Hall CD, 42:36). Multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Night is best known these days as the frontwoman of the renowned Renaissance rock act Blackmore's Night, a band created with her husband, Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple and Rainbow fame. Inspired by her two children, Autumn, 5, and Rory, 3, the album starts with lullabies and expands to other soothing songs, designed to help her children fall asleep. The album has had a 5-year gestation.

After opening with "Rock a Bye Baby," Night delivers her best original song, "Robin Redbreast," which is very pretty and has strings. It is followed by a delicate arrangement of "So This is Love," aka "The Cinderella Waltz" from the 1950 Walt Disney film. She and Blackmore wrote the very soothing "Sleep Little Baby" and the closing, pretty "Misty Blue," while daughter Autumn co-wrote the acoustic guitar-based "Lullabye in the Night." Another original is the lilting "Once in a Garden." There are fine covers of John Denver's "Annie's Song"; Kenny Loggins' "Return To Pooh Corner"; "Fireflies," recorded by Faith Hill; "Down in the Meadow," performed by Marilyn Monroe in the film, "River of No Return"; and "In My Arms," recorded by singer Plumb. The lyric booklet includes four short stories, three of which were written by Autumn. The disc also contains two music videos, starring the two children. Blackmore's Night's summer tour will bring them as close as the Regent Theatre in Arlington, Mass. on Aug. 14. Grade: B+

The Cars: Moving in Stereo -- The Best of The Cars (Elektra/Rhino CD, 67 min.). This follow-up to the box set of the Boston band's six studio albums for Elektra, released in March, features 18 tracks. All the surviving band members contributed to the song selection. The big hits are here, including "Just What I Needed," "You Might Think," "Let's Go" and "Shake It Up" to name a few, as well as a rare, single mix for "I'm Not the One," a live version of "Everything You Say" and a new mix by producer Philippe Zdar of "Sad Song," a track from the band's last album, 2011's "Move Like This," which was not included in the box set. Grade: A+ (but get the box set too)

Brian Tyler and Keith Power: Criminal original motion picture soundtrack (Lakeshore CD, 72:54). The film stars Kevin Costner, as an ex-con who has a dead CIA agent's memories implanted into him, as well as Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones (those three were all in Oliver Stone's "JFK"), Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot. Much of the score is hard electronica -- sometimes angry-sounding, as on "Chained." While Tyler is known for scoring "Iron Man 3," "Avengers: Age of Ultron" and "Furious Seven," as well as the music for the logos of Universal Pictures and Marvel, he also performs in the dance club circuit under the nom de plume Madsonik. Indeed, the wonderful opening track, "Drift and Fall Again," featuring the voice of Lola Marsh, is credited to Madsonick, as is a remix of the title track. "Drift and Fall Again" is very atmospheric, with strong drumming and a racing synthesizer.

After those two tracks, the listening gets a bit harder, or actually painful in the case of "You Remember." Sometimes the electronics actually groan. Two exceptions are the good "Distant Memories" and the gliding "Waves of Intuition." The disc closes with another version of "Drift and Fall Again," this time remixed by Kill the Noise (Jake Stanczak), which goes wild on the closing half. Grade: B-

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