Saturday, June 17, 2017
MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: RAY DAVIES - AMERICANA
It's been ten years since the last album of new songs by Davies, with most of the news being that oft-rumoured but never-fulfilled Kinks reunion. The good news is there is some solid Kinks-like music on this new set, Davies showing he's still quite capable of pulling off a guitar rock anthem, with that familiar London charm undiminished since the '60's.
Anyone familiar with the Kinks mainman knows he's not about to just throw out a few fun cuts and call it an album. He's the king of the concept piece, and has been doing them since The Kings Are The Village Green Preservation Society in 1968. He spent much of the '70's putting out these high-concept albums such as Schoolboys in Disgrace and Preservation Acts 1 and 2, with stories that were pretty hard to follow. This one is much easier. It's about his lifelong fascination with America, and what it has, and still represents to him. One must remember growing up in postwar Britain, the U.S. seemed unbelievably rich and huge and full of heroes, the images these kids still living with rationing would pick up in the '50's. Then Davies became enchanted by the rock and roll coming over, and soon he became part of the British Invasion, bringing it back. The '70's and '80's saw The Kinks become big stars in the hockey rinks, and by the '90's, Davies was spending more and more time, eventually moving to the States. Then he got shot, so he's had the full American experience.
There's a loosely connected story here, and a lot easier to take in than many of his previous albums. Davies' writing is more straight-forward these days than, say, on the Muswell Hillbillies album, where he transposed the idea of rural America white trash into suburban London, for some reason. There's a lot of actual autobiography here. We get his childhood dream of wanting to move to the wild West on the title cut (his "baby brother" even gets a mention). The Invaders refers to that old title they got in '64: "They called us the Invaders, as though we came from another world/And a man from immigration shouted out 'Hey punk, are you a boy or a girl?'" There are a couple of brief spoken word segments, including a cool story about sitting with Alex Chilton, talking about how the old songs never age. As far as concepts go, there really isn't a huge point to end on or take away, but it's not really hugely confusing either, which is a relief.
The good thing is that songs are quite strong throughout, not overburdened by the storytelling. Davies did something really interesting, hiring an actual Americana band to work with him on the whole set, and a great one, The Jayhawks. They bring an authenticity, especially on the acoustic guitar rockers such as Poetry, which sounds like the old Kinks number Starstruck with a twist of twang. Keyboard player Karen Grotberg even gets to take lead vocals on a couple of cuts.
This isn't a brilliant album, but it's a good one, one that grows better with successive plays, as favourites start to sink in. There's a lull in the middle. starting with Message From The Road, a duet with Grotberg that sounds like a Disney ballad with clunky lines about partying on the road with the boys. Davies' usual music hall-style gets a different twist on A Place In Your Heart, now more saloon-styled with The Jayhawks involved, and not really inspired. But things get back on track soon enough, with two of the best rockers, The Great Highway and Wings Of Fantasy helping end things with energy. This one certainly grows on you, and is very welcome return.