It's summer (finally!) and that means things tend to slow down. The publishing business is pretty much on hiatus until Labor Day (except for writers, who plow on throughout, and no doubt agents, right Josh?). All there is for me to do is write and tell you once again that WRITTEN OUT is now available from Crooked Lane. I won't mention the very positive review of the upcoming THE QUESTION OF THE FELONIOUS FRIEND from Kirkus Reviews, although now I have mentioned it so you know what I liar I am.
But since the pace is a little more relaxed at this time of year, I thought maybe we could devote today to a slightly off-topic topic. Lately, after a spate of... a while... I started listening to some new music, albeit not all from new artists. I am after all a geezer and should not be expected to keep on the cutting edge of new material. But assuming there might be a few other tail-end Baby Boomers checking in here every week, let's look at some new releases because they've been on my mind and for no other reason.
First, a quick mention of methodology: I pay for the music I listen to, just as I pay for the books I read, the movies I see and the food I eat. I do not steal other people's work. If you do, please don't mention it to me. My stomach is so easily upset.
As for the way I critique music: Like everything else in the arts, it's completely subjective. I like what I like. You like what you like. In all probability they are not exactly the same. That's okay. It doesn't mean one of us is right and the other wrong. It means I like what I like and you like what you like. Good. More employed artists that way. So onto the latest:
After a spate of only 40-something years, The Monkees (of all people) have put out a new album of music and not another "Greatest Hits" or "Unheard Tracks" rehash. This is new material, albeit some that really is from forever ago but you've never heard it before. And it was produced, played, sung and arranged this year, not in 1966 for the most part.
I'll admit that when I heard the news I was, let's say, skeptical. But it turns out Good Times really is a very good album. It opens with Micky Dolenz, finally starting to get credit for having a really good voice that hasn't lost very much at all since the "hey-hey" days, duetting with of all people the late Harry Nilsson--and a young Nilsson, to boot. The album's title song is taken from a demo tape Nilsson (who wrote for the band when it was a TV phenomenon) made but that was never recorded by the Monkees. Here Dolenz, who was a close friend of Nilsson, gets to play with his pal one last time and it's a great deal of fun.
Besides Nilsson, songs are written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond, Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, and band members Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith and Dolenz, among others.
Much of the album hits the same emotional points as a vintage Monkees album but the production by Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne (with whom I played softball when I was in my twenties and he was maybe 12) is impeccable and not at all dated. Yes, the 13 tracks are probably two too many but the whole album comes in at less than 40 minutes and is garnering respect from those who would have dismissed the band in its heyday. (And yes, Nesmith took part and has a couple of lead vocals. The late Davy Jones does get a vocal on Love to Love taken from old tapes, and it's nice to hear him one last time.)
After a break of a mere five years, Paul Simon is back with Stranger to Stranger, which has been getting massive critical acclaim and incorporates exotic instruments and sounds that seem to have inspired the brilliant songwriter and performer. The problem is, listening to the album is too much like work. It was probably a lot more fun to record it than to hear it.
It's not that Simon doesn't have good ideas--he always has good ideas--but the melodies are more like a grumpy man mumbling than a great artist spreading his wings. Simon has clearly decided that there's no reason to appeal to a listening audience anymore (in other words, no hooks), meaning he can make music just for himself. That's fine. An artist should be free to express himself as he sees fit. And a few of the tracks (like the single Wristband) are interesting to hear. But overall, I've only gotten all the way through it twice and I had to force myself to pay attention. It might be great, for all I know, but it hasn't stuck with me at all, and I am a long-time Paul Simon fan. He is one of the few artists (I can think of only the one) to whom I have written a fan letter. This one just didn't grab me.
On the other hand, as virtually everyone on the planet now knows, the original cast recording of the resplendent Hamilton will get into your head and never leave. That's fine, because you won't want to banish it ever.
You'll recall--if you're a regular reader and given to such things--that my family and I saw the musical a couple of weeks ago after a seemingly endless wait having bought tickets before last Thanksgiving. As a last birthday surprise for my wife--the occasion for which said tickets were purchased--the recording was waiting in the glove compartment of her car when we were driving home from the performance. It went into the CD player then and I don't think has been out since.
It's one thing to hear a middle-aged Jewish woman quoting rap lyrics around the house or having a 27-year-old explain the Presidential election of 1800 to you a few times (or more). It's another to get repeated listenings to a work this diverse (ethnically and stylistically) and truly appreciate the scope and the ambition of the whole score. It's a marvel to hear and better than that, it's so entertaining that the music, which ranges from hip hop to speed rap to pop to Broadway to girl groups and back again, will occupy your mind.
I managed to steal the CD from my wife's car and make a condensed copy for my car. It hasn't been out of the player for a couple of weeks. It probably won't leave for some time.
Not brand new, but anything by Circe Link and Christian Nesmith (see Michael Nesmith, above, and note that he is frequently referred to here as "Papa Nez") is worth hearing. Take a listen. Smart lyrics, genius arrangements and some of the friendliest music you'll ever hear. Their latest is a collection of covers called Side Dishes which is fascinating but the original albums are the real treats. Either way, what's not to like?