Ray Davies is one of the finest songwriters in pop music history. God has truly gifted this man. It’s not just his penchant for timeless melodies and hooks that justifies his place in rock royalty; he also holds a formidable talent in lyric writing. One only has to look at Davies’s history with the Kinks — the band he led until their dissolution — for evidence of his songwriting prowess. “You Really Got Me,” “A Well Respected Man,” “Waterloo Sunset,” “Sunny Afternoon,” “Lola” and “Destroyer” are just a few of the Kinks classics that have sprung from his songwriting pen; a utensil that is often loaded with sarcasm and satire, along with the always-present vivid storytelling, commentary and emotion. He effectively puts his listeners in the shoes of his characters, something that’s not easy to do well. And Davies is also a fine author of books. Waterloo Sunset is a captivating collection of short stories and Americana: The Kinks, the Riff, the Road: The Story is a fascinating exploration of his experiences in the United States, going back to when the Kinks first arrived stateside. It includes a vivid account of being shot in New Orleans, along with the emotional and psychological impact that ensued for the British musician.
Americana also happens to be the name of Davies’ new solo album and the disc deals directly with the book. It’s his first “real” solo record since the noteworthy and overlooked Working Man’s Cafe in 2007. (“You’re Asking Me” is one of Cafe’s best; a catchy and poignant tune addressing those who view veteran musicians as “know alls” versus just regular folks.) The Kinks Choral Collection (2009) and See My Friends (2011) are also Davies solo albums, but a bit different than the usual fare. The Kinks Choral Collection has mostly Kinks tunes that were re-recorded by Davies, his backing band and the Crouch End Festival Chorus; See My Friends is a collection of re-recorded Kinks songs featuring Davies collaborating and singing with notables such as Mumford & Sons, Jackson Browne, the late Alex Chilton (Big Star, the Box Tops) and others.
Americana is engaging. It’s as much an experience as it is an concrete album. Perhaps the first indicator of its quality is when Sony’s Legacy Recordings– not exactly an unknown label — decided to release it. And then there’s his backup band for the disc, none other than Minnesota’s Jayhawks. Paging Mr. Proust (2016) is their latest and it’s a fantastic piece of work for those who like their rock jangly and catchy. Davies’s choice in utilizing them for Americana could not have been better. Also, opting for his own Konk Studios in London as the place to record the disc was a smart decision. For this type of record, an artist needs to be comfortable and what better place than the legendary studio that’s been familiar territory since 1973 when the Kinks recorded their Preservation Act 1 album there? Davies also put himself in the producer’s chair; a position he’s held throughout most of his career. There’s a personality to Americana with a level of intimacy and vision he might not have been able to achieve had he handed over the production reins to someone else.
With any artist possessing a career as long as Davies, there are always concerns over vocals when a new album is announced; Americana was no different. Would he able to deliver the goods vocally? Davies is 72-years young and his vocal chords has seen a lot of use since the Kinks started recording in the earlier part of the 1960’s. (The Kinks released their first studio album in 1964). He’s been more subdued in his singing over the years but has been equally forceful. (Take a listen to the gentle pop of “All God’s Children” and then the power chord-filled, full-throttle punch of “Father Christmas.”) But, Davies rose to the occasion vocally on Americana and did a noteworthy job. He might not have quite the range he had at one time, but he is comfortable in his skin as a performer and wears the hat well.
As the album title suggests and the choice of the Jayhawks as a backing band indicates, Americana does have quite a bit of an overall roots rock influence. There’s pedal steel, mandolin, harmonium, organ, accordion, violin, cello, viola, double bass and brass instruments that appear, along with the tried-and-true rock instruments. Davies himself — besides vocals — contributes guitar, piano and percussion. Bill Shanley, a long-time member of the Davies camp, adds guitars and backing vocals.
Roots rock certainly isn’t new ground for Davies; he dabbled in the genre in the Kinks and on past solo recordings. The Kinks went through a period where they incorporated a strong roots rock influence, most notably on Muswell Hillbillies (1971) and Everybody’s in Show-Biz (1972). Songs from that period like the humorous, probably-autobiographical “Motorway,” the agitated “20th Century Man,” the tongue-in-cheek “Skin and Bone,” the woeful lover-in-prison narrative, “Holloway Jail,” and the reflective “Celluloid Heroes” are all gold-tinged examples of Ray’s power to successfully work within the roots rock — or any — genre.
Americana, like any Davies or Kinks disc, has its standout tracks; those songs that have a melody, hook or lyrical line that is not easily forgotten once heard. “The Deal,” which follows the pedal steel-tinged album title track, is a song that my friend Mark Bliesener stated would be a hit if the 1960s were in full swing. He means, of course, that folks in much of the modern musical landscape have forgotten about song craftsmanship and the need for a well-written hook. “The Deal” should be top the radio charts. The tune itself starts with some dialogue and the unmistakable voice of Ray Davies donning an American accent and taking on a role. Once the music kicks in, the timeless melodic pop sensibilities are present and take the listener down a path not unlike some of Davies’s finest moments. The hook-filled chorus does a nice job of dispensing a burst of extra energy, successfully marrying the two main parts of the song. The composition is a perfect page on which Davies’s lyrics rest. This time he’s at his satirical best, discussing a character completely overtaken by a self-seeking, self-involved, self-immersed rich and famous L.A. lifestyle.
“Poetry” follows and has one of the best chorus parts that Davies has written in ages. The guitar part and melody work in conjunction to make that part of the song unforgettable. It’s a mid-tempo tune and, like “The Deal,” utilizes the classic pop tools that Davies wields so well. The words speak to the rapidly decreasing sense of uniqueness and value of things in culture and mirrors the sentiments expressed in Americana: The Kinks, the Riff, the Road: The Story. We have our box stores, our chain restaurants; everything has become “fake”; not-as-good versions of what they once were. There’s no history, no intrinsic worth in the copies of what’s real, and it signifies what human beings do in their own lives; we embrace the counterfeit instead of the real. There ceases to be “poetry.”
“A Place in Your Heart” travels down a different road than “Poetry” or “The Deal.” The tune is tinged with heavy country music influences and has some addictive vocal harmonies and rhythm shifts. It draws you in and captivates with its sweeping musical movements and motion. It’s a love song of sorts that is full of doubt, uncertainty and an overarching hope. The female lead vocals that appear in the majority of the song add the perfect amount to the storyline. It all results in another successful song creation in Davies’s distinguished career.
Don’t invest in Americana thinking that it’s a Kinks record and don’t push play on your computer, iPod, phone or CD player expecting a follow-up to Working Man’s Cafe. Davies, like any great artist, has branched out and tried something new, while utilizing some of his familiar building blocks along the way. Americana is an album that shows true artistry and craftsmanship, something often missing in the world of modern music. Thank you to Sir Raymond Douglas Davies for showing us how it’s done.
***For the true Kinks fan, Dave Davies (Kinks guitarist and brother of Ray) has a new solo album out with his son Russ, called Open Road. Will the Kinks ever reunite, tour and record? Who knows? But at least Ray and Dave are still putting out material, albeit separately.
(Click here to read an article based on a interview I conducted with Ray Davies back in 2010.)
(c) 2017 Chris Callaway