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Michael Nesmith -The Wichita Train Whistle Sings (LP)
 

Michael Nesmith -The Wichita Train Whistle Sings (LP)

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Genre: country-rock
Rating: 2 stars **
Title:  The Wichita Train Whistle Sings
Company: Dot
Catalog: DLP 25861
Year: 1968
Country/State: Houston, Texas
Grade (cover/record): VG+ / VG+
Comments: gatefold sleeve
Available: 1
Catalog ID: 6366
Price: $10.00

I've always wondered about 1968's "The Wichita Train Whistle Sings". Was it an earnest reflection of Nesmith's goofy and eclectic nature, a strange way to garner a tax break (one of those urban legends that seemingly won't die), or was it Nesmith's version of a "Metal Machine Music" kiss-off to the music industry?

With an assist from a 52 member orchestra and various West Coast sessions players, the album was apparently recorded over a two day period in November 1967. SInce the sessions were held on a weekend, Nesmith ended up paying the musicians overtime, catering the affair, reportedly with an open bar, in the process running up a recording tab of over $50,000 - an unheard of cost at that point in time. Nesmith wrote all of the material (one song co-written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin), produced, and arranged with an assist from Shorty Rogers. Released in mid-1968, the album featured re-workings of Nesmith tunes; most previously recorded and released on Monkees albums. The difference was that this time around the material was given big band instrumental arrangements. Anyone expecting to hear top-40 pop tunes was going to be totally taken aback by these middle of the road, easy-listening efforts. In fact, even if you recognized the song titles, you were going to be hard pressed to recognize the redone songs themselves - try comparing the original 'Tapioca Tundra' with this update. And yes there was a certain irony given the album title (emphasis on 'sings') and the fact all ten tracks were instrumentals. Clearly thousands of Monkees fans were left confused and upset by the album - a fact reinforced by the relative lack of sales. Compared to Monkees blockbusters, this set peaked at # 144 on the US album charts. Anyhow, here's what Nesmith had to say about the project in the album liner notes:

"The laboring strikes ever endless streams of milk and heretofore unseen things ... while captain queeg at the head of his boat tells the wicked sea of his wicked hope and I can't tell if it's a joke or some mad state of confusion ... she looks like she belongs in a purple glass with all he help she can buy from the things that pass and quietly the dark strikes out its task in a hopelessly made state if confusion with unity a premium too rich for blood and sovereignty for sale for blocks of wood ... I can't help thinking it's all be done in an utterly mad state of confusion ... so I find myself with reams of thought caught on a rusty press with the men at the helm unable to find corporeal happiness ... so I think I may be this constant stress that brings about such confusion and I can't seem to block a square of light from string itself inside and regardless of effort to keep them blind there is nothing here to hide while the sky keeps going around high in some mad state of confusion with blankets covering the countryside and no one seeming to care ... the world turns green and then turns blue and then it all seems fair for stands in eternal streams of time ... man constantly must share and wander around a martyred clown in some endless sate of confusion and then there is wichita."

To which all I can say, is "Oh, I get it now ..."

- The opener 'Nine Times Blue' was originally intended for release on 1967's "Headquarters" (it didn't make the final cut, but was included in an expanded 1995 re-issue of the album). Originally a country-rock tinged number, this version opened with some ELP-styled church organ and then introduced a pretty, but MOR-ish horn arrangement. After a brief psych-out section the song morphed into a Procol Harum-ish feel with Hal Blaine's pounding drums came through loud and clear. Nesmith would subsequently re-record the track for 1970's "Magnetic South" First National Band set. rating: ** stars
- Recorded by The Monkees but not released during their professional lifetime, 'Calisle Wheeling' Nesmith continued to work on the song, eventually releasing it under the title 'Conversation' on his 1970 "Loose Salute" First National Band album. The song had a pretty enough melody, but this version sounded like something written for a game show. The orchestra certainly sounded like they were having fun with a nice Larry Knechtel keybaord section ending the song. rating: ** stars
- Included on 1968's "The Birds, The Bees & the Monkees", 'Tapioca Tundra' was one of The Monkees best psychedelic numbers. Unfortunately, if you liked that song's Tex-Mex feel (and I did), you'll be totally lost in this marching-band-on-a-bender version. And what was with the unexpected telecaster solo ? rating: ** stars
- 'Don't Call On Me' initially appeared on 1967's "Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd." This lounge lizard version sounds like it was recorded for one of those easy listening albums that every grandparent seems to have in their living room. That said, the song's worth hearing for what sounds like confusion on the band's part. There were a couple of places where Hal Blaine seems to loose track of the melody (understandable given the open bar during the recording sessions - you can hear yelling in the background), leading to mass confusion. Even though the liner notes showed it as a Nesmith composition, it was actually co-written with John London. rating: ** stars
- 'Don't Cry Now' was another compositional orphan - The Monkees had apparently recorded a demo version, but it never made any of their studio sets. Opening up with some Doug Dillard banjo, the song then exploded into another game show arrangement, before closing with another Dillard solo. Anyhow, the final score was Dillard 4, Nesmith and orchestra 0. Gawd only knows why, but Dot management tapped it as a single. rating: *** stars
- I'm not a Monkees scholar so I have to admit I don't know anything about the history of 'While I Cried'. Here it was given an almost-Baroque opening with a beautiful horn arrangement. If you listen to it stripped off all Monkees references, this is one of the few tracks to make a lasting impression. rating: *** stars
- Originally released on the band's 1966 debut (it was one of two band compositions deemed good enough for the album), 'Papa Gene's Blues' was easily one of Nesmith's standout songs with an easy-going Tex-Mex vibe. Say goodbye to those charms on this sluggish, big band version. rating: ** stars
- I know 'You Just May Be the One' was featured on one of the television show episodes, but don't remember it being on an album ... here it's given another marching band arrangement, complete with whistles and flutes. Just totally bizarre. rating: ** stars
- Another track from The Monkees' debut LP, in its original form 'Sweet Young Thing' was a cool country-meets-psychedelic mash-up. Here it was given a country-meets-psychedelic-big-band mash-up mix. Doug Dillard was again prominently featured. rating: ** stars
- Another "Headquarters' composition, 'You Told Me' was one of the first songs to showcase the band' playing their own instruments. Much of the original's charm came from Nesmith's twangy vocal which was obviously absent on this remake. You could still hear the melody on this one, but for the most part what you heard was a seemingly trashed band yelling 'lets eat' at the end. rating: ** stars

As mentioned above, Dot tapped the album for a single in the form of:

- 1968's ''Don't Cry Now'' b/w 'Tapioca Tundra' (Dot catalog number 45-17152)
Definitely one of the weirder vanity projects I've ever heard, but there are hardcore fans who swear by this one. Personally I'd rather hear Nesmith's more conventional stuff.

"The Wichita Train Whistle Sings" track listing:
(side 1)
1.) Nine Times Blue (instrumental) (Michael Nesmith) - 4:11
2.) Calisle Wheeling (instrumental) (Michael Nesmith) - 4:48
3.) Tapioca Tundra (instrumental) (Michael Nesmith) - 2:58
4.) Don't Call On Me (instrumental) (Michael Nesmith) - 4:31
5.) Don't Cry Now (instrumental) (Michael Nesmith) - 3:33

(side 2)
1.) While I Cried (instrumental) (Michael Nesmith) - 2:58
2.) Papa Gene's Blues (instrumental) (Michael Nesmith) - 3:26
3.) You Just May Be the One (instrumental) (Michael Nesmith) - 3:21
4.) Sweet Young Thing (instrumental) (Michael Nesmith - Carol King - Gerry Goffin) - 2:46
5.) You Told Me (instrumental) (Michael Nesmith) - 4:22
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