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Michael Nesmith - Rays Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 October 2005
ImageI hated Jorel Quimby.

You remember him, he was the guy whose folks had money so he always had cool clothes. He was just clever enough to say something funny at exactly the right moment and leave teachers laughing and pissed off at the same time. And girls used to call out his name when he’d saunter by, headed for his shop class or drama.


Yeah, I hated him … but later, secretly, in my bedroom, I’d turn my stereo up so loud it would blot out the world (and the TV in the living room) and wish that I was all those things. And with better hair. I wanted to be him. I know that eventually we all grow out of our bedroom phase (except my friend Jerry Dee, who’s probably still laying there reading comics and listening to Yes) and become what we will, but still, in odd retrospective moments, I think back and wonder what happened to him.

I’m starting to think Mike Nesmith must have been the Jorel of his high school class. I mean, out of thousands of people he was chosen to be the lead Monkee, and then proved to be the coolest one of the four. He wrote hit songs (“Distant Drum”). Basically invented MTV. Made “Repo Man.” Made art. Made music. Made money. Cool stuff on any scale.

And with his latest collection of music, I think he’s answered my question about Jorel’s fate.
In a style Nesmith calls “New Century Modern,” Rays seems to be a mostly instrumental concept album about craving nourishment amidst the streets of the material world. While driving around in the de rigueur car du jour, searching out a place to eat, the protagonist (Mike N himself, according to the comic strip artwork on the cover) ends up in an Eden-like field with the realization that it’s the soul that needs to be fed (by the rays shining from within), and he leaves the other stuff behind.

Sounds like an interesting life and a good place to land.
Good for him.

Good for Jorel.

I just don’t want Rays to be where I end up. Is this what I really have to look forward to? Does a well-traveled life ultimately lead to an Eden that is computer generated like a “Star Trek” holodeck? If so, let me buy my ticket to that land where a 12-year-old is learning the joys of playing “25 or 6 to 4” on a guitar with bad intonation and a few strings missing. Nesmith may believe he’s transporting me to a place where the air is fresh and I can appreciate the light within and without but … I can’t breathe. The music doesn’t let me because it doesn’t breathe fresh air itself. Breathe in that Miles Davis way. Space. Open space. It seems odd he’d head down one musical road in order to promote a concept like this one, and end up in a place where you’re boxed in by the tools you’re using to build that very concept. Seems Nesmith used all the equipment at his disposal to fill all those spaces that some musicians might “leave in,” and became entranced by the digital monolith he erected … right in the middle of his Eden. That’s not to say there aren’t interesting or memorable moments. The opening cut “Zip Ribbon” has a righteous Santana vibe running through it, with Chester Thompson (Tower of Power keyboardist, not the Genesis/Zappa drummer) playing the B3 and Gregg Bisonette playing drums. But it is not righteous enough to carry you through the rest of the tracks. They’re inventive, sometimes musically witty, and very, very cold.

In Rays, Eden’s music doesn’t really swing. Or bounce. Or make mistakes, or practice for days on end while your dad yells at the football game on the TV. It’s a place where the music sounds way too much like the “play along” setting on the organ in your grandmother’s den. The samples a little too pedestrian. The horn stabs in “Best of It” ruining an interesting set up fueled by a killer guitar tone. By the time you reach “Bells” you get the feeling you’re listening to an experiment in cut and paste.

Nesmith sees Rays as a kind of emergence, something that was already there in various bits and pieces (or, his term, “detritus”) only to become visible, and cohesive, as he continued his work on the project over a period of years. I think that in its emergence this work became way too external, with very little of the internal spark that makes the best music. I’m not anti-samples, computers, digital processing, electricity, whammy bars, screaming repeaters, I love the stuff, but I need to believe that when I reach my next self-actualization, the theme song will be played on a Dobro by a guy who’s tapping his heel in rhythm. Or maybe by the next, next, next Bob Dylan shouting over samples that don’t have me wondering what program he used to create the song. Pro-Logic? Garageband? Ableton Live?

I don’t want to be able to tell which sounds are computer-generated vs. “touched by human hands.” Listen and you’ll hear what I mean.
And I just want to believe that if there are words in a song they matter enough to be brought up to the front of the mix. I want to believe that they’re important, even if they’re repetitive and it’s a song about scoring dope that I wrongly think is about the nature of my own befuddled existence.

I want to believe that Jorel Quimby went on to live some kind of fulfilling life as a professional smart-ass and didn’t end up dehumanized and desensitized in a kind of sterile Orwellian music-by-numbers world.

But knowing how in-tune, and bright, Michael Nesmith is, and how creative, and thinking about how girls probably used to shout “MIKE” as he made his way to his next class in his cool French-cut shirt and beanie, I’m afraid that Jorel is probably watching Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” as we speak. And maybe the sound of Rays is all that I have to look forward to. That makes me want to buy some comic books and shut my bedroom door.

Engineering and Technical are credited to Richard Bryant, Michael MacDonald and Michael Nesmith. This music was listened to on an Apple G5 with Harman speakers, with the subwoofer beneath my chair and the speakers pointed at my face. It sounded immaculate and the bass more than drowned out whatever my neighbors downstairs were hitting their ceiling with.

I really gave this set more than ample means to win my heart. I burned it to a CD and drove all the way to Orange County and back so I could hear it a few times in my car. It’s much better as driving music, and helped the 25 MPH 405 freeway time pass by. I set my factory-direct GM-type equalizer to the groovy “Jazz” setting (basically boosting the highs and lowest frequency while leaving the mid-range fairly flat) and truly appreciated the care that went into assembling these tracks. It sounds pristine. But to repeat: ASSEMBLING. I decided to give it another go and played it through my Sony home theater surround sound system, and it ended up back in my car. Besides downloading Rays from iTunes, you can reserve a limited (second) edition of the CD at It says there that each CD is numbered by Nesmith, comes with a display case, an 8-1/2x11 print of the cover art, and a certificate of authenticity.

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