Various Artists: Papa Nez:  A Loose Salute to the Work of Michael Nesmith


By Jason Thompson

I have no more than I did before . . .

I admit it: I’m a Monkees fan. I have been ever since I was a little kid and first got to see the reruns of their television show at my grandmother’s house whenever we’d go to visit. At that time, Micky was my favorite as he seemed to be the zaniest of the bunch. To say the least, it was interesting to see the Monkees’ popularity go through dramatic resurgences while I was growing up. I recall them doing their reunion tour in the mid-‘80s when I was in middle school, which sparked off a dismal album (Pool It!) and a renewed interest in the TV series. It seems like the Prefab Four know just when to come back every decade to scoop up both old fans and new listeners alike.

As I got older, my favorite Monkee shifted from Micky to Mike. “Wool Cap” ultimately seemed the funniest to me as a teen, thanks to his deadpan humor, but mostly because of his great original songs that he wrote for the group. Indeed, it was Nesmith’s own “Papa Gene’s Blues” from the Monkees’ debut album that struck an early chord in me when it was included during the TV show’s first season. And if one takes a moment to sit down and inspect the Monkees’ albums closely, then they’ll certainly find that Nesmith was certainly a songwriter to be reckoned with, even creating his own form of silly surrealism at times in songs like “Tapioca Tundra”.

Of course, we all know that Mike was the second to leave the group, after Tork’s departure following the abysmal reception to the Monkees’ feature-length film Head. Nesmith lasted two more albums and then said goodbye. He had already released a solo album by that time, a strange instrumental set called The Wichita Train Whistle Sings and set about writing songs that were picked up by other bands, like the Stone Poneys featuring Linda Ronstadt who took Mike’s “Different Drum” and turned it into a sizable hit.

From there, Nesmith would continue to release a variety of country and pop-influenced albums and set up his own Pacific Arts production company. With it, he imagined a TV show that would show nothing but music videos. This was back in the late ‘70s. Of course, MTV would take off just a few years later, but at the time Nesmith’s idea was considered too strange; a commodity no one in his or her right minds would go for. Still, he triumphed with his own visual special Elephant Parts as well as producing such cult film favorites as Tapeheads starring John Cusack and Tim Robbins.

Nesmith’s work has never gone without praise, and so Dren Records recently collected up 19 different acts to take a stab at some of Mike’s songs for inclusion on Papa Nez. Among the artists included here is Simon Raymonde from Cocteau Twins who does a nice take on “Here I Am”. Some of these bands weren’t familiar to me, and they might not be to others as well, but that’s quite all right. The fact is that this is a collection that should do Nesmith proud. Yes, everyone here puts their own stamp on Nez’ classics, but the whole affair does not turn into some sloppy product the way something like Encomium (that godawful Led Zep tribute album) did.

Some of the expected cuts are here. Frog Holler takes “Different Drum” and turns it into a lovely, more subdued piece than the Stone Poneys’ take. Tom Gillam does a great job on the Monkees-era track “The Girl I Knew Somewhere”, while Meredith Ochs updates “Listen To The Band” remarkably well. I have to admit that my very favorite “Papa Gene’s Blues” as handled here by Two-Fisted Tales had me scratching my head at first, as this version rocks a bit more than the original, thereby diluting the wonderful melodies in the choruses a bit, but after a few listens I was enjoying it for its own newer qualities.

Also included is the favorite “Some Of Shelly’s Blues”, taken care of here by John Beland who turns in yet another fine version of the classic tune, and “Daily Nightly” as performed by Jamie Holiday. What one must be aware of here is that Papa Nez does indeed include a good amount of twang. Don’t come here looking for pure pop with no accents. For the most part, the songs included here have a southern drawl to them. But it’s an enjoyable aspect, one that shows such songs as “Sweet Young Thing” and “Nine Times Blue” (handled by Western Electric and Sixty Acres, respectively) as blueprints for the alt-country outburst that would take place during the last decade. It makes it interesting to note that Nez’ brand of music has always found an audience no matter what was popular at the time.

So if you’re a Nez fan much as I am, then you will undoubtedly find a lot to like here. If you’re not, then give this one a listen, anyway. Mike Nesmith is one of the best American songwriters we’ve had in the last 30 or so odd years. His songs have a lasting quality about them that not too many others can claim.

And yes, his mother really did invent white-out.

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