Often it seems that only devoted Nez-heads are aware that Michael Nesmith was, or is, anything besides a Monkee. Hoping to correct that is this tribute featuring nineteen artists offering takes on some of Nesmith’s best-known tracks.
Papa Nez leans toward Nesmith’s countrified Monkees tracks rather than his later efforts with the First National Band and as a solo artist. Nine of its first thirteen tracks are from Monkees albums, another five on Papa Nez were recorded (if not released) during that 1966-1969 period. Consequently, some of his intriguing later works, from the sorrowful 1970 hit “Joanne” to the quirky “Cruisin’”, go unexplored. Instead, the focus is on Nesmith’s initial forays into country-flavored rock, which helped set the stage for the similarly styled efforts of the Eagles and Poco.
Buddy Woodward kicks off the set with a faithful rendition of “You Told Me” — so faithful, in fact, that it replicates the goofs which opened the track on the 1967 Headquarters album. A nice, energetic performance that stays unwaveringly, if annoyingly, true to the original, it embodies everything that is good and bad about this collection.
From Scott McKnight’s note-for-note recap of “Sunny Girlfriend” to Last Train Home’s spirited but textbook take on “Good Clean Fun”, many tracks are well-done but don’t take Nesmith’s efforts to a new place. The album is so reverential as to be almost timid, its artists fearing to experiment with Nesmith’s structures and pacings.
Not everything is so by-the-book, though. Frog Holler attempts the most drastic reworking of the bunch, slowing “Different Drum” (a sprightly hit for Linda Ronstadt & the Stone Poneys in 1968) to a snail’s pace. It’s a thoughtful rendition, though the arrangement highlights the relative immaturity of one of Nesmith’s earliest lyrical efforts. Nice treatments are also afforded “Daily Nightly” (a singular dip into near-psychedelia, rendered spasmodically by Jamie Holiday) and the raved-up “Papa Gene’s Blues” by Two-Fisted Tales.
Nesmith’s strongest suit as a songwriter — his ability to summarize relationships and large truths in brief, often poetic rhymes — shines through in several spots. Simon Raymonde’s elegant take on “Here I Am”, a pretty piano ballad with steel guitar overlay, is the set’s grandest moment, while the pure harmonies of the Rust Kings on “Texas Morning” and the Mary Janes on “Prairie Lullaby” highlight Nesmith’s impeccable sense of song structure. The poetry of “Nine Times Blue” (Sixty Acres) and “St. Matthew” (Mark McKay) lose nothing in their carbon-copy arrangements; one wishes the sweet-voiced Meredith Ochs had lent her talents to the similarly ballady “While I Cry” or “The Crippled Lion” instead of her ill-advised muting of the majestic “Listen To The Band”.
The one big letdown is that few of the vocalists involved come across as ambitious or gifted as Nesmith himself, whose earnest twang and measured falsetto went largely unnoticed throughout his recording career. Where Papa Nez succeeds, though, is that it may well convince you to track down Nesmith’s original versions of his many touching, concise songs.