CD Review of Rays by Michael Nesmith

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Released: 2006
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Yes, he used to be in the Monkees. Better to get that out in the open now; otherwise, we’ll be dancing around it throughout the entire review, and that won’t be good for anyone.

Mike Nesmith was the one with the wool hat, the one generally portrayed by most accounts as the Monkee most fed up with the band having virtually no say in the songs they sang or (rarely) played, and the one who, after leaving the band, began a solo career in the early 1970s that – and maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but it’s not as fragile a limb as you might think – deserves almost as much credit as Gram Parsons’ Reprise albums for creating the country-rock genre. Country-rock, however, is something that’s decidedly in Nesmith’s rear view mirror…a choice of phrase made all the more apropos by the cover art for his new album, Rays.

The cover is a comic strip by famed artist/caricaturist Drew Friedman which portrays Papa Nez in all his various looks over the years, from the Monkees’ days to his various beards to his current, clean-shaved look. In each of the first four panels, Nesmith is driving a different car, but in all of them, he’s on a desperate quest to find something to eat, only to find at the end that, “suddenly, I’m not as hungry as I’d thought.” In this case, food is almost certainly supposed to be a metaphor for something else, but I was never very good at metaphors; it’s probably best, then, to focus on the music at hand.

Rays rumbles to life with “Zip Ribbon,” an instrumental powered half by Nesmith doing his best Carlos Santana impression on guitar, half – appropriately enough – by the B3 organ of former Santana member Chester Thompson, whose keyboard proves to be as crucial to the album’s overall sound as Nesmith does. From there, we shift into the rather funky “Dynaflow” (presumably a reference to the Buick suspension of the same name, given the automotive theme of much of the album), where Nez shares vocal duties with Kurt Wagner of Lambchop; as frontman for a group once described by their label, Merge Records, as “Nashville’s most fucked-up country band,” it’s cool to find Wagner teaming with Nesmith, who’s almost certainly been an influence on him.

The instrumental pairing of “Friedrider” and “Carhop” follow, the former dreamy and the latter slightly more rousing, leading into the intentionally bass-heavy “Boomcar,” where Nesmith sings, “Crank up the amps, turn the bass to the bold / Cruisng my way to a new sonic threshold / BOOM!” “Best of It,” which follows, features Nez doing all the music himself and getting into a pretty decent groove in the process, but it’s followed by “Ed’s October Café,” which has a dramatic sweep that’s reminiscent of the soundtrack of a ‘40s movie, bringing to mind a time when you could go on a drive and readily find a roadside place called Ed’s Café.

The strongest one-two punch on Rays begins with its title cut, which features Nesmith’s strongest vocal of the album, then follows with “Bells,” the best instrumental of the bunch; the crescendo as the music builds and builds to the point of release is one that’s destined to end up as the soundtrack to an emotionally-powerful scene in some future film. If “Land of Pies” seems like mere filler, that problem is resolved with “There It Is,” which finds Nesmith reaching the promised land for which he’s been searching since the album began, with his layered vocals proclaiming, “There up ahead / Just like she said / The place where we’ll be / Leaving the dust and journey behind.”

“Follows the Heart” closes the album, with Nesmith – his voice echoing slightly – getting both emotional and philosophical, singing as the sun goes down:

Here at the end of the day
Now there is something to see
The world may not be what it seems
As it dances on the edges
Close to the ledges
Following the guidelines
And arrows of the timelines
But, oh, what a feeling

Listening to Rays is something you shouldn’t do only once. Giving it just a cursory listen does it no justice; it’s an album that needs to breathe, to unfold, before you can truly appreciate its charms. In short, Michael Nesmith has taken an artistic journey, and he’d like you to ride with him. Oh, by the way, as long you’re gonna be in the passenger seat, would you ask him if, on his next album, he’d go with less instrumentals and more singing? Because, man, his voice still sounds great.

~Will Harris