Fire Note Says: Kinks’ rocker Ray Davies joins with alt-country Jayhawks to take a musical journey through the wild west, sorting reality from fantasy in pursuit of the American Dream
Album Review: Ray Davies, 73, is still best remembered for a pop song he wrote and recorded with the Kinks in 1964, “You Really Got Me,” which was covered successfully by Van Halen in 1978. Davies inserts the guitar hook and the opening line of that song on his new solo album Americana, in one of the album’s spoken word pieces, “The Man Upstairs,” which introduces a new song set to jazzy shuffle rhythm, “I’ve Heard That Beat Before.”
There’s little doubt that with that one hit song, Ray Davies and lead guitarist brother Dave Davies, had a profound influence on much of the rock & roll music that would come after them, especially from those inclined toward power-chord based hard rock. But The Kinks were far from a one trick pony during their 30-plus years as a band. Ray Davies led the band through periods of musical experimentation, at times quiet and introspective, at others dramatically theatrical, but always with artfully written lyrics many that address the struggles of the working classes, and a fondness for his native Britain’s imperial history and rural village life among the nation’s commoners. It’s likely that emphasis in his songwriting that earned The Kinks the label as “the most adamantly British of the Brit Invasion bands.”
While “You Really Got Me” may be the band’s most played hit, it was far from their last. Airplay success in the U.S. continued with early 70’s singles like “Lola,” “Apeman,” “20th Century Man,” “All Day and All of the Night,” and had a commercial resurgence in the 80’s with songs like “Come Dancing,” which was later adapted into a musical for London’s West End stages with 20 other new songs by Davies.
Even before The Kinks broke up in 1996—after years of rumors about the tempestuous relationship between the Davies’ brothers, Ray Davies had released a couple solo albums, and branched out artistically to write films for television, short stories and other fiction, including several musicals. In 2015 he was awarded an Oliver (a British Tony) for Outstanding Musical Achievement for his musical “Sunny Afternoon.” Davies artistic significance was enshrined in 1990 when the Kinks were the third English band inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, at the same time as The Who, preceded only by The Beatles and The Stones. Earlier this year he won one of the highest honors given to a British citizen, being knighted by Prince Charles, and given the honorific of “Sir.”
All that said, Davies has never really rested on his laurels. Although this is his first new album since 2007’s Working Man’s Café, in some ways his work on this new album finds its roots in the DVD that accompanied that release, titled Americana: A Work in Progress, which was a 20 minute film made on his 2001 Storyteller American tour. In 2013, he released a biographical book based on his experiences living and touring in the US, also titled “Americana.”
For this new album, Davies worked with the Minnesota alt-country band the Jayhawks, describing it as his first volume of music inspired by the American experience, from the idealism of the American dream to the down to earth day-to-day reality of those who have failed to achieve that promise. Gary Louris, Karen Grotberg and the rest of the Jayhawks join guitarist Bill Shanley and multi-instrument string player John Jackson to help bring Davies’ vision of America’s wild west to life, with a focus on the American dream as embodied in LA’s Hollywood fantasy and “The Deal,” which offers up Davies’ comically accurate portrayal of the shallow materialism of our culture at its most banal, as the actual deal turns out to be “utterly surreal, totally fabulous, fraudulent, bogus and unreal.”
The title track opens the disc celebrates the romanticized ideal of making “my home/where the buffalo roam” hinting at the high hopes that The Kinks brought with them when they first toured this country, set to a subtle country music ballad, relying largely on piano and slide guitar. Davies’ incisive social commentary is at its sharpest, and comes into jangly musical clarity in “Poetry,” where the protagonist has “read in the news/someone said that the great population is better off than yesterday/better health, better food, better sex, better higher education/but with credit card bills always on the way.” He looks at the best this culture has to offer, “corporations providing our every need/and those big neon signs telling us what to eat,” and asks “where is the poetry?”
Some of Davies’ history writing for the musical theater stage comes through “A Place in Your Heart,” which settles into the kind of corny country & western musical rhythm that feels more like parody that an earnest expression. But he sounds deadly serious in the spoken word “Silent Movie,” where he describes a meeting with the late, great Alex Chilton of Big Star (and that great Replacements song named for him), where they discuss the power of songs and the joy of playing music and feeling ageless in a world that continues changing with the times. Davies’ uses that story to launch “Rock ‘N’ Roll Cowboys,” a song that deconstructs the combining of the mythologies of rock & roll musicians and the outlaw cowboy that we often get in songs like Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead Or Alive,” but Davies is asking “do you live in a dream or do you live in reality?”
Davies comes on like a modern day de Tocqueville, the 19th century author who came to America and wrote positively of the values of equality and individualism, except that now in our third century, only the stark distance between the haves and the have nots can no longer be ignored. And so it goes in Davies’ perceptive view of the world. The once welcoming country that took in immigrants now sees them as “Invaders.” In “Change for Change” Davies imagines how the world needs to embrace new technologies, new paradigms, and compares that to the busker on the street who’s begging for a little spare change. In “The Great Highway,” he forces us to stop living in some fantasy, because “life is not a road movie/so wake up to reality.”
While Americana is a record with seemingly dark insights, Davies and the Jayhawks have put together a solid musical offering, shaped around his sharp, thoughtful poetry and artful perceptions expressed with wit, charm and self-deprecating humor. While the 13 songs and two spoken pieces are lush and languid, for the most part, uptempo rockers like “The Great Highway and the closing “Wings of Fantasy,” tend to balance out the quieter reflective numbers, and the album as a whole has an elegant flow, as if created the way one would a musical.
Key Tracks: “The Great Highway” / “The Deal” / “Rock ‘N’ Roll Cowboys”
Artists With Similar Fire: Jayhawks / Tom Petty /
Ray Davies Website
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– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb