[17 February 2008]
After a prolonged period of apparent semi-retirement, it looks like Ray Davies is really back at it, having now issued two albums of all-new material in as many years. From 1964 to 1993, he fronted the Kinks, composing most of that truly seminal UK band’s material on their twenty-two studio LPs and creating a legacy that has inspired countless musicians and songwriters. Until recently, he had recorded only two non-Kinks releases, the soundtrack for the 1985 film Return to Waterloo and 1998’s The Storyteller, a concert album of old and new material interspersed with bits of Ray’s memoir, X-Ray.
In 2006, Other People’s Lives emerged as Davies’ only album of solo material tied to neither book nor film. It also ended what was essentially a thirteen-year musical drought for Davies, since the Kink’s final studio effort, Phobia. It’s an odd career trajectory, but Davies has always been an iconoclast. Remember, folks: He’s not like everybody else.
The Brits were treated to Ray Davies’ latest, Working Man’s Café, in autumn of 2007. I guess that’s fair, seeing as how England is his homeland. But doesn’t he live in New Orleans now? At the very least, he was residing in that beleaguered city when, in 2004, he was shot in the leg. Surely that makes Ray an honorary American. His current label, New West, is heavy on excellent artists from the USA, including Dwight Yoakam, Vic Chesnutt, and Alice Cooper(!). Well, from whichever side of the pond he dwells, Davies is making great music once again.
Working Man’s Café continues in the vein of Other People’s Lives. On both albums, he’s successfully amalgamated all of the styles he visited throughout his 30 years as the leader of the Kinks. In but one song, “You’re Asking Me”, Davies segues from the jaunty pop of Face to Face (1966) to the arena rock of Low Budget (‘78). The title track, meanwhile, is a lovely and melancholic tune that’s full of nostalgia. His crack backing band balances the delicate air of the song with the solid foundation of a rock anthem, quietly bashing on cymbals and gently grinding out power chords, much like the E-Street Band at their low-burning best.
Davies doesn’t forget his earliest roots as a blues rocker, either. “The Voodoo Walk” struts like a badass through its swampy guitar tones and its relaxed 1-2-3 combo on the chorus. It’s a cool cut, but Davies’ greatest gift is his sharp melodic sensibility, which is frankly wasted on blues-based numbers. “Peace in Our Time” shows off his strengths beautifully. The low-buzzing guitar line that walks slowly across the song’s post-chorus is startlingly affecting, recalling the gorgeous procession of notes in “Waterloo Station”. With “In a Moment”, Davies goes for the quick and punchy hook of a horn-backed chorus, sounding surprisingly like ‘70s-era Chicago (before the reign of Peter Cetera and syrupy ballads).
All the lyrics on this disc focus on the struggles of the ordinary, working class person. These are the folks that Davies has always represented, but he makes a special point of it here, writing portraits of out-of-work grocers, mortgages, and “empty factories in Birmingham”. The album also pays tribute to New Orleans, with: “Walked down to Preservation Hall / Looked for the old trad band”, from “Imaginary Man”.
Indeed, every song from Working Man’s Café is worthy of mention. Even more so, they’re deserving of being heard. Davies never once gets lazy, nor does he aim too high and miss the mark. This isn’t a particularly adventurous album, but one wouldn’t expect too much experimentation from an elder statesman of rock. Now in his fifth decade of making music, Davies knows what works for him. He’s on such a good streak now, we can only hope that he won’t change much in the future, either. Maybe the only significant difference between this new record and its predecessor is the production. Other People’s Lives had a dense, compacted sound, with thick guitar tones pushed up to the front of the mix. Working Man’s Café, on the other hand, was recorded in Nashville and bears the crisp, tight production values of a country record, wherein the music is at the service of the singer and the song.
This, too, suits Davies well. His voice is in very fine shape, still lovely in the high tenor range and still capable of a good, deep snarl. His writing is the best it’s been since the ‘70s. Singer and song shine through clearly on Working Man’s Café, another great album from Ray Davies, who had already given us so much to love.