I don’t really know Floyd Cramer at all, apart from passing him over countless times in dollar bins, but this was a thrift store novelty with a cute cover, and I am a Monkee appreciator more than superfan. The movie Head was a formative mindbender, and really only that soundtrack and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. are the two I put on anymore. But this predates both of those, and naturally covers the early hits. The only one I remember from this is the theme song, and its jaunty backbeat was a palette cleanser on many mixtapes I’d made. But this LP opens with “I Wanna Be Free,” a sleepy choice that sets the tone for the pleasant outing we’re in for—I’d remembered this album as a piano-led trio, but there’s all sorts of coloring—gentle guitar and strings on this one. “I’m A Believer” comes to life a bit more, with a vocal chorus humming what we already know and backed with chipper horns. Cramer’s playing on “Last Train To Clarkesville” seems pretty leaden to these ears, pounding out the chorus almost note-for-syllable.
The finger-snapping theme is still the best thing here. There’s a not-bad rumbly guitar solo and some regrettable Hollywood harmonica. With “Papa Gene’s Blues” were kinda back in boring player-piano territory, and really not much to hold one’s attention onto. But I’m guessing that’s the point of a instrumental record like this. Not sure why the Monkee sound would need to be softened to this degree, they didn’t become remotely subversive until the (G-rated!) Head, but still it must have been all too heavy for some cocktail parties. “Hold On Girl” hews to its original arrangement with harpsichord and all, but the more down vibe is refreshing, though momentarily undermined by Tijuana-like brass and then nearly redeemed with as mean of a guitar break as we’re gonna get. Tonally, this track is all over the place, which might make it the most intriguing. “Steppin’ Stone” was probably as heavy as the Monkees got, and I kinda dreaded the potential treatment here, but the additional instrumentation is surprisingly restrained, with surf drum breakdown and a space age organ even more otherworldly than the original. My previous instinct was actually pretty right on on this one. At a party, a few tracks—“Theme,” “Hold On Girl” and “Steppin’ Stone”—might momentarily divert and amuse, but on the whole there’s not much reason for this to exist.