Ray Davies and America Continue to Get Reacquainted
Kinks frontman Ray Davies has some thoughts to share about his time in the United States, some banal and some deeply personal.
Our Country: Americana Act II
29 June 2018
Our culture is full of singer/songwriters who age well, especially during a time when many of our musical titans are now well into their golden years. The latest releases by John Prine, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen may not pose a serious threat in dethroning any past "classic" albums, but they still go the distance in reminding fans and non-fans alike as to why that person is such a beloved artist. Times have changed and the music business has changed even more so, and through it all, Ray Davies of the Kinks has always remained a convincing songwriter. The overall quality of his recent albums Other People's Lives and Working Man's Cafe delighted fans, even if those releases weren't exactly Village Green Preservation Society. Then came See My Friends.
In 2011, Davies got the idea to cover his own songs with Billy Corgan, Jon Bon Jovi, Metallica, and Mumford & Sons, just to name some of the worst collaborations found on the album. See My Friends was a mixed bag, which is hardly surprising. What caught me off-guard was how easily the mighty Ray Davies was slipping into an elderly man's idea of rocking out with the kids. His spoken-word banter with Amy Macdonald towards the end of "Dead End Street" was just the right amount of hokiness to sink one's trust in the same guy who brought us Muswell Hillbillies. I gave Davies the benefit of the doubt, thinking that the whole thing was an exercise in getting something out of his system.
Ray Davies's triumphant return came in last year's Americana, a strong batch of songs that allowed the legendary British invader to acknowledge his relationship with America in a most subtle and tuneful way. Now comes its sequel Our Country: Americana Act II, an album built upon thin song ideas and a staggering amount of nostalgia and name-dropping, all delivered with such ham-fisted earnestness that it will give your grandpa enough reason to pause. Our Country's cover art is almost identical to its predecessor. It also boasts a whopping 19 songs. But the first Americana album is by far the superior one.
Three of the 19 songs on Our Country are recycled from Davies's past. The anthem to escapism "The Getaway" sounds more full-bodied here than on Other People's Lives while the 2018 recording of the coming-of-age number "The Real World" is, unfortunately, a great deal more droopy than what you hear on Working Man's Cafe. When it comes to the two versions of "Oklahoma USA", it's a bit of a draw seeing how this new recording neither improves nor ruins the original from 1971 (I don't believe you can ever wear out the lyrics "All life we work but work is bore / If life's for livin' what's livin' for?").
The remaining 16 tunes range anywhere from not bad to terribly awkward. A great many of them are marred by spoken-word introductions or interludes that only show Ray Davies's age while imparting none of his subtlety. "America, the land of ice cream and apple pie, guns and the wild west," he dramatically announces at the start of "The Getaway". The honky-tonk shuffle behind "Back in the Day" (Are the Jayhawks really the backing band?) doesn't need much to soil it, yet a mid-song soliloquy where a woman complains about some guys socks does the trick. It's also a rival to "Oklahoma USA" in terms of name-dropping, plopping Chet Atkins, Hank Williams, Eddie Cochran, and Kay Starr on your toes. Alright, we get it! Things were better then!
When Davies chronicles the American conquests of his old band on "The Invaders", he sets the scene with "faces of cowboys and Indians". The good guys are victorious over the emissaries of evil. This all isn't nearly as bad as "The Take", a song about meeting a groupie. Davies describes an "epitome of rock chick" that was waiting for him after a gig in Minnesota. The response is delivered in a female voice, warning you that she is "gonna fuck me an icon tonight". Mercy.
These off-kilter moments are more likely to become lodged in your memory than the more elegant moments. The opening title track is a lovely, pastoral slice of folk that set the stage nicely, as long as you can overlook the spoken-word stanza that reminds us that "People came from all parts of the world / To settle in this great land / To live in peace and harmony / That was the dream." On the one hand, yeah, we've been reminded of these warm and fuzzy buzzwords since time immemorial. On the other hand, peace and harmony are scarce these days.
Our Country begins to really pull its weight as a memoir on the painfully honest pair of tracks "Tony and Bob" and "The Big Guy". Davies starts with stories about security guards from the days of the Kinks and uses it to segue into the frightening near-death story of taking a bullet on the streets of New Orleans in 2004. He finds himself "staring at the pearly gates", longing for his old bodyguard "like a child who's lost his mother". In the following epilogue track, he clumsily announces that "while I don't normally bear grudges, if one day I should return, vengeance will indeed be mine." Wow, that certainly could have been handled better.
As of this writing, a Kinks reunion has just been announced. As tempted as I am to draw comparisons to other curious solo projects followed by reunions, I'm not going to stake that claim since Ray Davies has always had a firm control over his solo career. Just as See My Friends captured Davies in a moment of weakness by trying to connect with mostly younger musicians, Our Country will hopefully satisfy the iconic singer/songwriter's fix for old-age corniness. I don't know how else to explain it away.