Thursday, May 04, 2017

Ray Davies' "Americana"

They called us the Invaders, like creatures from the black lagoon
Said that we was dangerous, like space invaders from the moon.
- Ray Davies, "The Invaders"

Fifty years down the road, it seems as though the Kinks -- early despoilers who exploded out of transistor radios with "stronger than dirt" rifferama on hits like "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night" before evolving into the vehicle for auteur Raymond Douglas Davies, who ranked just below the Beatles, Stones, and Who's tunesmiths in the songwriting stakes -- might be the most unjustly underrated of Brit invaders. Unlike his peers McCartney, Townshend, and Roy Wood, Davies took no cues from Brian Wilson, and while he borrowed as freely as the Stones did from African-American musical forms, he did so without trying to emulate the originators' mannerisms -- good call for an effete Londoner. Sure, the Kinks never inspahrd the adoration of millions like the Fabs, encapsulated the Zeitgeist like the Stones, or worked a gimmick as well as the 'orrible 'oo. But their string of LPs from Face To Face to Lola versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One (Part Two never materialized) ranks, in its modest way, with the best of those other bands' output, and Sir Ray (for he was knighted this year) has kept at it ever since, even after the Kinks disintegrated in the mid-'90s.

While his legend styles him the most British of Brit rockers -- largely a consequence of the Kinks being banned from touring the U.S. from '65 to '69, crucial years when their contemporaries were making bank and reputations over here -- he unassed his homeland to take up residency Stateside during the Blair years, and his new album, Americana, reveals him to be as obsessed with the land of the Wild West, Hollywood, and Chuck Berry as the Exile on Main St. Stones or London Calling Clash were. (For what it's worth, the first time I heard Being There, I thought Jeff Tweedy sounded like Ray fronting the Exile Stones.) Some records have so much visceral impact you can react to them immediately. Davies' work in subtler ways, and their pleasures require time to contemplate and acquire familiarity. Like a good pair of shoes, you want to slip them on and walk around in them awhile.

As one who had his entree into Kinkdom via Pye/Reprise era compilations -- the 20-minute Reprise Greatest Hits, the John Mendelsohn-curated Kronikles and Great Lost Kinks Album (the latter of which, in particular, Ray repudiated) -- and their '67 live-in-Scotland release, wherein their thin, weedy live sound was obliterated by a studio-overdubbed layer of '64-style audience screams, I didn't absorb Ray's greatest accomplishments until the age of CD bonus track maximalism, so I might be less qualified to opine than more dyed-in-the-wool devotees. My enthusiasm waned during the RCA and Arista years, although I saw 'em twice -- once on the Preservation tour, when some shitheel hit Ray in the head with a beer bottle while he was singing "Alcohol" (I figure the only reason he didn't call the show was that they were carrying so many people in their "opera company" that blowing the date would have sunk the tour), and once in their crowd-pleasing arena-rock daze -- and liked the occasional song ("20th Century Man," "Come Dancing"). Nevertheless, I swear that the record Americana reminds me of more than any other is Ray's '69 magnum opus, The Village Green Preservation Society.

The themes of the songs are familiar: life on the road, a postwar Brit's fascination with American archetypes, an old-fashioned man's resistance to a changing world. The title track shows that Davies' first experience of America, on tour with the Kinks in '65, left a lasting impression. "The Deal" reprises the Hollywood obsession best elucidated in '72's "Celluloid Heroes," and shows Ray's a little jaded ("Today I'm a bullshit millionaire / As good as anyone / Better than I was / In dreary Angleterre"), but the melody soars on the "Isn't it wonderful?" chorus, revealing the dream's still alive. Even as a young man, Davies seemed perplexed by modernity, and he's kept that sense, too, as he searches for meaning in the soulless material world he depicts in "Poetry."

The gentle, piano-driven "Message from the Road" and the uptempo "A Place In Your Heart" (with backing vocals that recall both the Carter Family and show tunes) form a nice diptych, conveying the traveler's sense of disconnection, with nice contrasting vocal contributions from keyboardist Karen Grotberg. "The Mystery Room" uses the blues the same way "Last of the Steam Engine Trains" did, in this case to provide a setting for Davies' age-appropriate ruminations on mortality: "Come and join us, we're here in the mystery room." In similar fashion, "Change for Change" is a fatalistic whiteguy's version of a field holler: "I don't live life, life lives me / Always has and always will be / Like a ship lost at sea."

The Tin Pan Alley-esque "I've Heard That Beat Before" is an urban domestic vignette in the grand old Davies style, while "A Long Drive Home To Tarzana" is an elegiac road song, suffused with warmth. "The Great Highway" rocks out like something off one of the Kinks' '80s LPs (those of A Certain Age will recall when record reviewers used to kvetch about whether or not a Kinks record contained one of these). In "The Invaders," Ray's empathy for the Meercuns who baited him in '65 ("'Cos the world as he knew it turned upside down and things would never be the same") shows that he might be capable of feeling the same compassion for a Trumpian or Brexiter in the now -- which is actually alright; there's never enough of that stuff to go 'round. "Rock 'n' Roll Cowboys" begins with an anecdote about a conversation Davies had with his NOLA neighbor, Alex Chilton, about how songs can take you out of time and make you feel safe in a changing world. "Do you live in a dream," the song's refrain asks, "or in reality?" In the closing "Wings of Fantasy," Davies chooses denial: "But I still feel an optimist / And hope will see me through / Imaginary distances / To be with you." While it's hardly an admirable choice, it's an understandable one.

The essentials of Ray Davies' craft have changed less over time than any of his contemporaries, which makes each new release less of an Event, but also makes him the only one of his cohort who could produce a record in 2017 that feels of a piece with his work from the heyday. For those with the time to listen deeply, Americana's rewards are ample.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great review - This is Ray Davies rebooted - THE DEAL is classic Davies and I'm starting to think, it may be his best song ever. I love the whole cd, I'm a fan from 64, pushin 68 this year, I love the Kinks, always have always will.

6:52 AM  

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