And the Hits Just Keep On Comin’. Michael Nesmith titled his 1972 RCA album ironically – when it “bubbled under” the Billboard 200 at No. 208, it actually bested its predecessor by three slots – but the LP did feature the once and future Monkee’s rendition of one major favorite, “Different Drum.” The 1965 tune became an enduring hit for the Stone Poneys featuring Linda Ronstadt in 1967, establishing Nesmith outside of The Monkees. Since 1968, he’s released 16 studio albums. Recently, 12 of them – every album from 1970-1994 including the compilation The Newer Stuff – have been collected on a majestic new box set from Demon Music Group’s Edsel label. The 12-CD box Songs brings together Nesmith’s complete RCA and Pacific Arts output for the very first time. This impressive set feels like the crown jewel of a recent Nez renaissance that has seen tours with Micky Dolenz, The Second National Band, and pedal steel guitarist Pete Finney as well as a new live album – all the more remarkable considering the artist was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and underwent a successful quadruple bypass heart surgery last year.
Songs begins with 1970’s Magnetic South, the first album credited to Michael Nesmith and The First National Band and the first solo album of his post-Monkees career. (1968’s The Wichita Train Whistle Sings was issued on the Dot label and isn’t included in this collection.) On Magnetic South, Nesmith continued in the country-flavored direction he had explored with The Monkees; he established his credentials by signing with RCA and pairing with Felton Jarvis (Elvis Presley, John Hartford) as producer.
A collection of pioneering country-rock tunes with a hazy, psychedelic flavor, the LP yielded the band’s first of three hits, the prettily wistful “Joanne” (No. 21 Pop). Nesmith, pedal steel great Red Rhodes, drummer John Ware, and bassist John London recorded two more albums together: Loose Salute (featuring the hit “Silver Moon”) and Nevada Fighter, both produced by Nesmith. Taken as a whole, the three First National Band albums are a cinematic journey of cosmic American proportions, of beauty, sadness, humor, love, and joy. They’re a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll, with Nesmith classics flowing as freely as a river – “Dedicated Friend,” “Grand Ennui,” “Tengo Amore,” “Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun to Care)” – and even some well-chosen, diverse covers from songwriters like Eric Clapton, Harry Nilsson, Hank Cochran, Michael Martin Murphey, and Richard Whiting.
1971’s Tantamount to Treason Vol. 1 introduced The Second National Band, with Rhodes the only holdover from the first line-up. While the opening “Mama Rocker” augured for a heavier style, the album remained of a piece with its predecessors with folk, pop, and country-western showcases for Nesmith’s alternately wry and aching voice. The next year’s ironically-titled And the Hits Just Keep On Comin’ (spotlighting early Nez tunes from the Monkees period and even earlier) featured only Nesmith and Rhodes, and finally saw the artist revisiting “Different Drum” in his own style. The spare, intimate setting suited the artist, but he returned to a band setting for his final RCA effort: 1973’s Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash. Under its Norman Seeff photograph of Cowboy Nez (the same photo used on the cover of Songs), one found a lean, mean seven tunes including a reworking of The Monkees’ “Some of Shelly’s Blues,” the affecting story of “Winonah” with its classic country imagery, a medley of “The F.F.V.” (with narration) and bluegrass standard “Uncle Pen,” and a new interpretation of Cindy Walker’s “Born to Love You.”
As of 1974’s The Prison, Nesmith’s albums would arrive on his own Pacific Arts label. The Prison was part of an ambitious audiovisual project, intended for listening while reading a novella written by the songwriter. Even without the reading material, The Prison stands on its own, with its philosophical lyrics melded to often graceful, ethereal melodies. While the ubiquitous Rhodes returned to grace the album with his pedal steel, David Kempton’s ARP, Michael Cohen’s keyboards, and a drum machine all added touches of modernity to the sound. Note that the master used here is the 2008 remixed version created by Nesmith; the original mix is only available in the digital domain from his webstore as an MP3 download sourced from vinyl.
Though recording would become less frequent for the innovative artist, Nez would continue to push the envelope with his future albums, sometimes in tandem with video or prose projects. 1977’s From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing notably introduced the fan-favorite sing-along single “Rio,” for a which a music video was produced. The video would prove instrumental in the forming of MTV. The varied program of songs leaned more in a rhythmic pop direction than either The Prison or the RCA albums, taking in Latin, tropical, blues, and honky-tonk influences. The country-rock flavor was still very much present on tracks like “Casablanca Moonlight” and the lone cover, “Navajo Trail.”
Two years later, Infinite Rider on the Big Dogma continued in this eclectic vein, even opening with a rock-disco hybrid, “Dance (Dance and Have a Good Time).” Nesmith traded his usual laid-back vocals for a gritty shout before channeling the ’50s on the pastiche “Magic (This Night Is Magic),” on which he deployed his falsetto in doo-wop style. HIs most straight-ahead rock-and-roll record, Infinite Rider might also be his most accessible. “Flying (Silks and Satins)” has a danceable beat and a slick, SoCal sheen that would be unthinkable on a First National Band record, while the lovely “Carioca (Blue Carioca)” conjures a late night jazz vibe. Bass and crunchy guitar propel the funky, dryly spoke-sung “Cruisin’ (Lucy and Ramona and Sunset Sam),” and “Factions (The Daughter of Rock ‘n’ Roll)” and “Horserace (Beauty and the Magnum Force)” are all-out rock. Each song on Infinite Rider has its own identity, making it a richly rewarding listen.
Concentrating on his Pacific Arts video division, Nesmith didn’t release a new album until 1989’s The Newer Stuff. The LP premiered eight previously unreleased tracks (recorded in 1980) along with previously issued cuts; only the eight “new” tracks – many written for an abortive movie musical called Videoranch and a couple from the Television Parts series – are included on Edsel’s reissue. 1992’s …Tropical Campfires… reunited Nez with Red Rhodes for the ninth and final time. It’s one of Nez’s warmest efforts, blending sun-kissed rhythms with rootsy C&W on tracks like “Moon Over the Rio Grande” and “Twilight on the Trail” (complete with cowboy singalongs). He faithfully covered two Cole Porter classics, “In the Still of the Night” and “Begin the Beguine,” and even tackled Ary Barroso’s “Brazil,” and all feel part of a rich cross-cultural tapestry.
The box set concludes with 1994’s The Garden, a belated thematic and stylistic sequel to The Prison. Like the earlier album, The Garden was designed to be listened to while reading a novella. Of course, only the musical component is here, but Nesmith successfully recreated the sound and feel of the original with members of his Campfires band and new additions including his children Christian on guitar, and Jason and Jessica on background vocals.
Songs is housed in a sturdy slipcase, with a lift-off lid. Each album is presented in a mini-LP sleeve, and every disc is emblazoned with a uniform custom label. The accompanying 32-page booklet serves the material well. Printed on impressively high-quality stock, it includes all of the original liner notes and credits, as well as brand-new liner notes from Monkees aficionado, broadcaster, and 7a Records co-founder Iain Lee. The four bonus tracks appended to past reissues of the RCA material have been reprised on the set, too: non-LP B-side “Rose City Chimes” on Magnetic South; the instrumental “First National Dance” on Loose Salute; and “Cantata and Fugue in C&W” and “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette” on Tantamount to Treason Vol. 1. Phil Kinrade has remastered everything in the set to fine effect, and those familiar with Edsel’s past reissues of Nesmith’s work will know what to expect from the sound.
Throughout his long career, Michael Nesmith has remained true to himself and his art – truly beating to a Different Drum. His fascinating body of work benefits from the one-stop shopping box set that is Songs, as one can connect the dots from the first album to the last. It’s an impeccable tribute to an iconoclastic musician and songwriter.
Includes the following albums:
- Magnetic South (1970) – Michael Nesmith & The First National Band (plus bonus track)
- Loose Salute (1970) – Michael Nesmith & The First National Band (plus bonus track)
- Nevada Fighter (1971) – Michael Nesmith & The First National Band
- Tantamount to Treason Vol. 1 (1972) – Michael Nesmith & The Second National Band (plus bonus tracks)
- And the Hits Just Keep On Comin’ (1972)
- Pretty Much Just Your Standard Ranch Stash (1973)
- The Prison (1974)
- From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing (1977)
- Infinite Rider on the Big Dogma (1979)
- The Newer Stuff (1989)
- …Tropical Campfires… (1992)
- The Garden (1994)