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The Monkees
Rhino (72542)

Never mind the bollocks, here's the Monkees.

It's quite likely that no act in rock 'n' roll history has ever been so misunderstood, nor greeted with such unwarranted critical hostility, as the Monkees.

Conceived as a made-for-TV rock group, the Monkees were reviled by the hipper-than-thou as a soulless concoction of Tiger Beat faces who hadn't paid their dues and didn't play their instruments.

The inherent absurdity of this specious litmus test of authenticity hasn't prevented it from being a pervasive and prevailing blunt instrument with which armchair pundits have repeatedly and tiresomely attempted to bludgeon the Monkees and their supporters into bloody submission.

While the group's fans recognize the sheer chuckleheaded folly of such myopic Monkee-bashing, all but the most blindly devoted would at least concede some points to the opposition. Yes, the Monkees were a manufactured phenomenon. Yes, the Monkees didn't play their own instruments, at least not until their concert tours and the 1967 Headquarters LP. Yes, most of their tunes were provided for them by Don Kirshner's post-Brill Building hit machine, though the individual Monkees (particularly Michael Nesmith) wrote several memorable songs of their own along the way. None of these concessions do anything substantive to invalidate the lasting appeal of the Monkees and their many wonderful recordings.

But, like the song says, that was then, this is now. In spite of a successful 3/4 Monkees reunion of Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones and Peter Tork in 1986, and recent 30th anniversary concert tour by that same trio in 1996, the Monkees have been unable to establish themselves as anything more artistically viable than a crank-out-the-hits oldies act. The group's 1987 comeback album, Pool It! , was a critical and commercial disaster, and Nesmith's pointed non-involvement in these ventures has fueled the popular (though flawed) opinion that Nez was the talented Monkee, and the others mere hacks who occasionally reunite in desperation. For right or for wrong, anything done under the Monkees aegis by just Dolenz, Jones and Tork, without Nesmith, has been widely viewed as suspect and incomplete, and has generally been dismissed as such.

Which brings us, finally, to Justus , the brand-new, unexpected studio reunion of Dolenz, Jones, Tork and Nesmith, playing their own instruments, writing their own songs, making a record that is truly 100 percent their own for the first time in their history. Nesmith's involvement in this project automatically lends it an air of legitimacy, a legitimacy Pool It! never had. Nonetheless, one approaches it with some trepidation, and with some understandable fear that the group is going to embarrass itself. One hopes for the best; one expects the worst.

Justus confounds expectations. Its sound is far heavier (almost self-consciously so) than any would've though likely, almost as if the Monkees were daring you to call 'em the Pre-Fab Four one more time, you sunavabitch. The album was apparently Nesmith's idea to begin with, and he joins Dolenz and Tork to form an effective power trio that rocks with forceful abandon. (Jones was unable to join the others until after recording had begun.)

Still, if Nesmith is seen as the driving force, it's Dolenz who really shines as lead singer on six of the album's 12 tracks. Gone is the Mr. Vegas lounge-singing of Monkee Micky sleepwalking through his 17 zillionth performance of "I'm A Believer;" no, Dolenz sings here from the broken heart and the wounded soul, possessed of a passion we've not heard from him in ages, and spitting out a vitriolic anger we've never heard from da Mickster. Forget about the oldies tours; here, Dolenz reminds us of why he's simply one of the best (and certainly the most consistently underrated) rock 'n' roll singers on record. And his drumming is superbly forceful and authoritative throughout Justus .

The album opens with a savage run-through of "Circle Sky," the punkish Nesmith tune the group originally performed live in the 1968 film Head . The only old Monkees song redone for Justus , this version of "Circle Sky" seethes with even more attitude than the original, setting the appropriate pissed-off tone for the rest of the record.

Did we say "pissed off?" Well, the brings up the album's two angriest songs, Dolenz's "Never Enough" and Nesmith's "Admiral Mike." "Never Enough," one of four songs Dolenz wrote about his bitter divorce, keeps its anger in check while its blood boils just under the surface, resulting in a catchy number that ain't afraid to draw blood - good choice for the first single. "Admiral Mike," on the other hand, is a furious growl propelled by snarling guitar and a manic Dolenz vocal that may convince you he's about the grab Davy's red maracas and beat some deserving "stupid twit" to a messy death. Hey, aren't these guys supposed to be too busy singing to put anybody down?

Dolenz also acquits himself well on the insistent "Regional Girl," the '50s-style "Unlucky Star," the ballad "It's My Life" and the spunky "Dyin' Of a Broken Heart." Jones, mercifully unburdened by any drippy '90s cousins to "I Wanna Be Free," offers able and amiable jaunts through "Oh What A Night," "You And I" (a Dolenz-Jones composition originally done in 1975 by Dolenz, Jones, Boyce and Hart, and not to be confused with the same-titled Monkees tune on the 1969 Instant Replay album), Tork's edgy "Run Away From Life" and the album-closing "It's Not Too Late." Nesmith and Tork each take one lead vocal (on "Circle Sky" and the odd, dirge-like "I Believe You," respectively), otherwise content just to be active parts of a righteously rockin' band.

And rock they do. Really, no one had any right to expect much from a Monkees album in 1996. And an album as fully realized and accomplished as Justus ought to have been inconceivable - impossible. The fact that the Monkees pulled it off is delightfully flabbergasting. It deserves airplay. It deserves accolades. It deserves success. Here's hoping the Monkees finally get their due.

Five years ago in these pages, this writer lamented that a studio reunion of Dolenz, Jones, Tork and Nesmith as a self-contained band "was never a real possibility," and concluded that any sort of Monkees reunion was very, very unlikely. In that same issue, Dolenz said, "I've gone solo and I won't be going back." What a difference a half-decade makes. More importantly, what a totally unforeseen turn of events it is for this 30 year old Pre-Fab Four to regroup and create a new album a rock-solid as Justus . Far-freakin'-out, man.

- Carl Cafarelli

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