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Put together for an American comedy TV series about a pop group whose songs were written and played on by others, the 'Pre-fab Four' as they were known soon rebelled against their puppetmasters and insisted on doing their own thing. They ground to a temporary halt in 1970, but never completely disbanded - there were various partial and occasionally complete reunions over the years for recording and touring purposes. In 1995 they all reformed to write, record and produce what would be the first album featuring all four since 1968, without any additional musicians, hence the name 'Justus'. It was also the first entirely self-penned album, and would be their final recorded work as a quartet, although there were a few more tours to come. The curtain came down for good in February 2012 with the death of vocalist Davy Jones, the only British member.
Five of the twelve tracks were written by drummer Micky Dolenz, with two each by Davy Jones, guitarist Michael Nesmith, and bassist/keyboard player Peter Tork. One was a Dolenz/Jones collaboration. All four shared lead and backing vocals, Dolenz singing lead on six, Jones on four, the other two one each.
The early Monkees' hits may have been largely bubblegum songs, but they were great bubblegum songs which after many years nobody is ashamed to admit to enjoying. 'Justus' is a different proposition entirely. It's well worth listening to, but if you're expecting another set of sparkly effervescent pop, you might be disappointed. The album sparked some media interest on release in 1996 but only enjoyed fleeting success, failing to trouble the charts on either side of the Atlantic, and no singles were extracted from it.
'Circle Sky', probably the most immediate, is a slightly rewritten of an old Nesmith song from an early album, and the only one on which he sings lead vocal. (One gets the feeling he was the least enthusiastic about taking part in this project.) With a Bo Diddley-style shuffle rhythm, it's carried mainly by a catchy chorus line - 'looks like we've made it once again'. The lyrics are apparently referring to the whirlwind of sights caught while travelling by air on tour looking down from the plane.
'Never Enough', written and sung by Dolenz, is more of a grunge rocker - in fact, a kind of grunge atmosphere is on several other tracks. Maybe they had been listening to Nirvana and Pearl Jam beforehand. With its blazing power chords it's not that far removed from the Stones, circa 'Honky Tonk Women', although without the snarling, full-blooded intensity of Jagger and Richard.
Written and sung by Jones, 'Oh What a Night' is closer to the more pop-style fare associated with the group. It's a lively, fairly brisk number about a one-night stand, and might have fitted comfortably onto one of the albums they made at their peak. Much the same could be said for the song which follows, the Dolenz-Jones collaboration 'You and I', Jones singing again on a number where pop meets country.
Next, it's almost back to the 1950s for Dolenz's 'Unlucky Stars'. From the first few seconds, you'll be saying The Platters' 'The Great Pretender' or The Beatles' 'Oh Darling' from 'Abbey Road'. If you love old-style doo-wop, you'll relish this, and the bluesy guitar on top is a bonus.
The other Nesmith song follows. 'Admiral Mike' is apparently a diatribe against a journalist, although whether a fictitious one or one to whom the group took a genuine dislike, we are not informed. But it's a big, heavy, and again quite grungy guitar sound, as Dolenz vents his (or their) spleen in lines like 'You're selling ads, you slimy toad, Don't smile at me and shake my hand...you're selling ads, you stupid twit.' Splendidly vitriolic stuff.
Having got that off his chest, next Dolenz is 'Dyin' of a Broken Heart'. However he doesn't sound too heartbroken, until you listen to the lyrics (or read them on the insert) and find out that he's actually addressing someone whose days are numbered, figuratively speaking. It's quite jaunty, almost a funky rhythm, but not one of the stronger tracks.
Things pick up on the same writer's 'Regional Girl', with big rocky chords and a massive drum sound. Incidentally, his drumming is pretty strong throughout the record, but possibly better nowhere else but on this one. It's the closest to hard rock, too, with a fierce solo by Nesmith on top of the chunky chords.
Tork's two songs come next. 'Run Away From Life', with Jones on vocal, is mid-tempo and while the song is nothing special, the synth work is good. 'I Believe You', with Tork singing as well, is a slow song introduced with stately piano chords and a song that sounds rather like Tears For Fears and some of those rather earnest British bands of the mid-1980s. Some choral-sounding vocals enter later on and it seems to verge on jazz at one point. I feel that with bigger production, and perhaps a bit of brass instrumentation, it would have sounded more interesting - it promises great things but never quite delivers.
Big balladry is the order of the day on Dolenz's 'It's My Life', with more of those majestic piano chords. It's maybe not quite as interesting a song as the previous track, but a little more commercial. Finally, Jones' 'It's Never Too Late' makes a good closing track, a gentle, almost anthemic song with rather a pretty tune and attractive keyboards as the writer sings optimistically about what might have been a new beginning for the group. In mood and general atmosphere it reminds me more than a little of Katrina & the Waves' Eurovision winner 'Love Shine a Light', a song I've always adored.
A twelve-page foldout insert, containing pictures of the group individually and at work together in the studio, plus lyrics for each song. Significantly, perhaps, Nesmith, true to form, seems to be only half smiling if at all in the studio shots, and on the front and back cover pics he looks ultra-serious in contrast to the grins of the other three. But he has dispensed with the woolly hat of younger days.
The Monkees were always stuck in retro-land, victims of their own past. Once everyone had forgiven them for not playing on their early hits, they were feted as being synonymous with classic pop singles - for a very short time. After that, 'Monkees Greatest Hits' compilations and the like were guaranteed to sell in their thousands, while only a few fans really paid proper attention to the fact that they were not sitting back and coasting on past glories but still writing and recording new material at intervals - something which was unfairly overlooked. It's a rotten world, sometimes.
So if you are prepared to give them a chance beyond the hits and find out what they were like when they could do what they really wanted to, I think you'll enjoy it. It is a bit patchy, but the best tracks do grow on you. You should be able to find copies at a reasonable price. If so, grab one and give it a few spins before you realise that what might sound a tad dull on first listen is really rather better than you initially thought.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]