Ray Davies' latest album is part tribute compilation, part vanity project. Mark my words, no one will be discussing this a year from now.
Ray Davies is not above getting involved in his own tributes. When the compilation of Kinks covers This Is Where I Belong: The Songs of Ray Davies & the Kinks was released in 2002, Mr. Davies himself provided the liner notes, detailing each track while having not heard almost any of them. I say "almost" because he actually sang on the last track, a duet of "Waterloo Sunset" with Damon Albarn. It was a strange but refreshing angle to take on his part -- writing about Lambchop's contribution to the tribute without ever having heard of the band. An old man thing to do for sure, but old men can be charming, right?
Now with See My Friends, rock legend Ray Davies has taken the self-covering duet concept and spread it over an entire album. Fourteen Kinks tracks get new life (or sudden death) with a new roster of friends, including Billy Corgan, Lucinda Williams, Bruce Springsteen, Spoon, Jackson Browne, and Alex Chilton, among many others. Apart from the weird idea of covering yourself when there was hardly anything wrong with the original recordings, about half of the guests here are at odds with Davies' easy-going vocal delivery. Bruce Springsteen, for instance, does not compliment Davies in a ying-meets-yang sort of way. No, his sudden and affected blurts in the opener "Better Things" sound more like an elk trying to lock antlers with a Honda.
The lack of subtlety and coalescing continues all throughout See My Friends, one face palm moment following another. Paloma Faith and Amy Macdonald, who ruin "Lola" and "Dead End Street" respectively, have the crassly annoying habit of singing from the backs of their throats. The presence of Davies' voice feels more like a rescue for the song than an enhancement. Metallica's reading of "You Really Got Me" manages to cram a great deal of ill-suited metal shtick into two minutes: Lars Ulrich's double kick drum, Kirk Hammett's silly guitar solo, and James Hetfield growling the word "yeah" in two syllables. As crappy as that might sound, at least it's not as bad as "Celluloid Heroes" -- Jon Bon Jovi's irony-deficient vocals and Richie Sambora's gyrating leads only proving that these guys would prefer a Kinks ballad only if it sucked more.
But since we are dealing with a wide range of artists, there are a number of decent (i.e. reverent and unnecessary) contributions that neither hurt nor help the source material. Black Francis' cover of "This Is Where I Belong" does nothing, as does the 88's non-unique spin on "David Watts" and Gary Lightbody's positively boring reading of "Tired of Waiting for You". "Waterloo Sunset" is boiled down to acoustic guitars and voices with Jackson Browne singing a great deal of the lyrics, and it sounds rather nice. Then again, it is very hard to screw up "Waterloo Sunset" so the result is more pleasant than impressive. Alex Chilton's enthusiastic singing on "'Till the End of the Day" is more of a comfortable fit alongside Davies' voice. But as bouncy and vibrant as the tune is, there's something sad about hearing the late Big Star legend singing "I feel good, yeah / 'Cause my life has begun."
Two tracks here deserve a few points for knocking out two birds with one stone: Mumford & Sons' welding of "Days" to "This Time Tomorrow" and Billy Corgan slyly crossing "All Day and All of the Night" with "Destroyer". They aren't without their own problems, though, as the former sounds like someone accidentally sat on the mixing desk and made the banjo and drums louder than the vocals. As for Mr. Corgan, his respectable medley comes dangerously close to silly hard rock. Knowing him, that was probably his goal. The one recording that is an improvement upon its original, adding a little bit of mystery to the proceedings, is Spoon's performance of "See My Friends". There is a cloud of ether surrounding this song that is about as hazy as its origin (so far, I can only link it to 1998's The Storyteller). While most songs on this album plod or stand completely still, its namesake manages to float and stir about.
See My Friends goes something like this: one track is excellent, seven are overly obedient and/or dull, and the remaining six are shit. Aside from the Spoon track, you are not getting your money's worth. Unless the responsible recording studios had year-end quotas to fulfill, it's hard to see why this album exists. Yes, these are all very good songs. But do you really need a tribute album to tell you that? See My Friends will not be a stain on Ray Davies' soul. By the same token, it will be forgotten pretty quickly. All told, I'd rather listen to my copy of the Thanksgiving Day EP.