Monday, June 19, 2017

Review of The Monkees' "Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd."

I've been slowing up a little with my reviews lately. Maybe a little summer (or almost summer) funk. But I posted this one on the Sputnik Music website earlier this morning. This one is especially nostalgic for me -- it was the first album I ever owned.

Review Summary: "Another Pleasant Valley Sunday here in status symbol land. Mothers complain about how hard life is, and the kids just don't understand".

In the mid-1960s, The Beatles reigned supreme in the music world, particularly in the singles market. They sold so many records and raked in so much money that it was inevitable that challengers would pop up to try to cash in on their popularity. Perhaps the strangest of these would-be rivals was The Monkees. Formed by a pair of television producers for a slapstick comedy show meant to appeal to kids and teens, The Monkees consisted of four young actors/musicians (Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork) who initially weren't even allowed to play any of the musical instruments on their records. Although they were derided by many as the "Prefab Four" in mockery of their faux-Beatles status, much like Disney's Pinocchio, they eventually evolved into (sort of) a real band. And Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. was arguably their finest album.

Pisces was The Monkees' fourth album, all four coming within a two-year span. By the time of its release, the four band members had successfully lobbied to gain some control over the choice of material on the LP, and to be allowed to play at least some of their own instruments. Nesmith even wrote one of the songs, and he and Jones each received partial songwriting credits on other numbers, while Tork was credited with the authorship of the comical story of "Peter Percival Patterson's Pet Pig Porky". 

The album featured two hit singles. "Pleasant Valley Sunday", sung by Dolenz, is one of the band's best. Written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, the song envisions suburbia as a soul-crushing lotus land, with "Rows of houses that are all the same/And no one seems to care". "Words", the lesser of the two singles, is also sung by Dolenz with an assist from Tork. Written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who wrote many of the songs on the band's first two albums, this one is notable for some dark and vaguely psychedelic music on the verses that works pretty effectively. Unfortunately, it's marred by a below-average chorus.

The real secret of Pisces' strength, however, is that to a far greater extent than on previous Monkees' albums, Nesmith is set loose here. While most of the leads on the first three LPs were split between Dolenz and Jones, on Pisces, Nesmith sings lead on five of the thirteen tracks, and he generally makes the most of the opportunity. Particularly strong are "What Am I Doing Hangin' Round" and "The Door Into Summer". Both are songs of regret. In the first, a brash Yankee protagonist laments a lost romance with a beautiful Mexican girl, while the second tells the story of a man who chooses money and a career over true happiness, only to realize too late that he's wasted his life. 

Two of Nesmith's other numbers are also pretty strong. "Don't Call on Me" is a sad pseudo-lounge song that finds him finally breaking free from an exploitive relationship, while "Love Is Only Sleeping" is a more optimistic tale of patience that is ultimately rewarded with the growth of love. His only misfire is the album-opening "Salesman", a country-rock novelty track that's just a little too bloated with corn pone.

Jones does a serviceable job with his four leads, although nothing here approaches the level of his later hit "Daydream Believer". His best number on the LP is probably "Star Collector", a somewhat flip dismissal of a groupie who's only interested in the rich and famous. "Cuddly Toy" finds him playing the role of a smarmy Casanova explaining to his latest conquest "I never told you that I'd love no other/You must have dreamed it in your sleep." Nice guy. "She Hangs Out" finds him cautioning a girlfriend that her baby sister is growing up a little too fast. Finally, "Hard to Believe", a slow, rueful love song, is probably the weakest of his tracks, although it's the songwriting and not his vocal that's at fault.

As for Dolenz, in addition to the album's two singles, he also contributes "Daily Nightly", a song actually written by Nesmith, which is an admirable, if not completely successful, attempt at a more psychedelic brand of rock.

Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. will be fifty years old come this November. Even today, there's a playfulness to the LP that still makes it enjoyable. It serves as a fine example of '60s pop-rock in general, and also gives a good flavor of the what the Monkees phenomena was all about. The band might never make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but Pisces is solid proof that while The Monkees were often funny, in a silly, lighthearted way, their music was never a joke.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars