by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
Mike Nesmith was always a bit of a renegade. During his years in the Monkees, he was the band member who fought the most vehemently for the band’s right to write and play on their own songs. (Indeed, he would literally fight on the band’s behalf, famously punching a hole through the door at a label meeting and telling an executive “That could have been your face.”) While the bulk of the band’s hits would remain written by outside parties (primarily, Neil Diamond and the songwriting teams of Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart and Gerry Goffin & Carole King), the band’s efforts to show off their own writing and playing chops (starting with 1967’s Headquarters) turned out to be surprisingly good. Nesmith was arguably the strongest songwriter of the four, even penning one of the group’s Top 40 hits, the very underrated “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” (which might have charted even higher if not for the fact that it was only a B-side to the Diamond-penned “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” and was consequently under-promoted). Nesmith would also score a very major hit as a songwriter when the Linda Ronstadt-led folk trio The Stone Poneys took his song “Different Drum” to #13 in 1967, the song remaining a staple on oldies stations to this day.
After finally departing the Monkees in 1970, Nesmith signed a deal with RCA and, with a new band he dubbed the First National Band, somewhat confusingly began issuing a regular stream of country-rock records that were much more distinctly country than rock, the band even including a full-time pedal-steel player in the legendary Red Rhodes. They were mostly fine albums – and Nesmith would even enjoy a fluke Top 40 hit with the excellent pure-country outing “Joanne,” earning him the distinction of being the only former Monkee to have a Top 40 solo hit – but they certainly can’t have been what his fans from his Monkees days were expecting of him, either, and perhaps not surprisingly, his sales fell sharply with each subsequent outing.
Ironically, but in true Nesmith fashion, it wasn’t until his RCA contract expired and Nesmith started his own indie label, Pacific Arts, that he started making more traditional pop records again and moved away from the heavy country stylings of his early solo work, and his strangely-titled 1979 outing Infinite Rider on the Big Dogma would deservedly become his highest-charting album since his first post-Monkees solo outing Magnetic South, reaching #151 on the Billboard 200.
While the disc is more pop-oriented than anything Nesmith had made up to this point in his solo career, it’s still an unusual disc – not in the least since all the songs intentionally have one-word titles (though Nesmith attaches long parentheticals to each of the song titles on the lyric sheet) – and it’s quite eclectic in its wide range of styles. “Tonite,” for instance, flirts with disco, while the lead-off cut “Dance” similarly aims to get people out of their chairs. The wonderful single “Magic,” on the other hand, featuring Nesmith unusually singing in a near-falsetto voice, is a throwback to sock-hop ballads of the late ‘50s, complete with pounding piano chords and doo-wop-styled backing vocals.
The edgy story-song “Cruisin’” delves into funk territory with Nesmith mostly narrating his way through the verses over an irresistible bass line, while “Light” dips its foot into reggae waters. The pure rock and roll of “Factions,” in contrast, would fit in effortlessly onto any Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band album. The fun and impressive album closer “Capsule” finds Nesmith in an appealing, vaguely-Latin-tinged jazz-funk atmosphere that sounds a bit like Boz Scaggs’s “Lowdown,” Toto’s “Africa,” and Jamie Cullum’s “Frontin’” all thrown into a blender together.
The disc’s most astounding moment is the silky-smooth first-side closer “Carioca,” a beautiful and atmospheric tropical-themed ballad that might very well be the prettiest melody Nesmith has ever written. As if the song itself wasn’t already stirring enough, Nesmith throws all kinds of wonderful ear candy into the production, including a saxophone that gently sways throughout the background of the first verse and an amazingly catchy piano break rendered all the lovelier by an impressive multi-layer backdrop of harmony vocals (all provided by Joe Chemay).
While the disc may not lean much closer to Nesmith’s Monkees-period brand of songwriting than his earlier, more country-oriented solo outings did and will consequently be just as surprising and intriguing for first-time listeners as any of his prior albums, there’s still a sense that Nesmith was trying a little harder this time out to make something for the masses again but do it in a way that was still true to himself and was just as artful, intriguing, and sophisticated as it was commercial. In that regard, the album is very much a success and certainly ranks as one of his finest outings, with or without the Monkees. (If you’re interested in checking out further Nesmith solo albums, 1970’s Magnetic South and 1992’s Tropical Campfire’s also come highly recommended, the latter disc also boasting one of the greatest versions you will ever hear of the Cole Porter standard “Begin the Beguine.”) While no hit singles would emerge from the album, nearly half of the songs here were made into music videos by Nesmith and incorporated into his Grammy-winning film Elephant Parts, Nesmith playing a critical role in the early ‘80s in the development of what would become MTV and even later producing the videos for such massive hits as Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long (All Night)” and Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.”