Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Ray Davies - Americana

Review by Mike Kimmel

There's something I find terribly endearing about Ray Davies. I don’t know if it's something in his attitude that comes across, or something in his lyrics. Maybe it's just the turn of a phrase, the addition of an unexpected vocal presence. I really have no idea, but I do like him enough that I've written a song entitled "I Want to Be Like Ray Davies". It'll be on my first album (yeah, whenever that comes out)!

For instance, in the title track he's talking about "…my baby brother and me in the land of the free…" taking some road somewhere. They have no idea where it goes, but "…it's gonna take us somewhere". The title is "Americana", which he refers to at least once as "Amer-i-nirvana" because he wants to make his "…home where the buffalo roam in that great panorama."

He's got a home in New Orleans, and through Americana he mentions a couple of Americanisms such as "Big Sky" (Montana) and "Moon" (Kentucky) several times. I know. Pretty vague, but the context in which the words are used will help explain a bit more clearly.

I was fortunate enough to see the Kinks years ago with Ray and Dave Davies, Mick Avery with his candy cane striped drumsticks. It was a great show. John Mellencamp opened. Of course, that was years before his bass player wound up wanted on child pornography warrants out of Taiwan (that's not made up – how bad do you have to be if Taiwan issues child porn warrants against you?).

At one point, Ray Davies – obviously the focal point of the band – said that he'd been described recently as a homosexual alcoholic. "Well I'd like to make one thing perfectly clear right now. I haven't had a drink in weeks!", and then brother Dave launched into the title track from the Low Budget release.

Regarding the other point… The man was dating Chrissie Hynde, fercryinoutloud!

Another sidebar, which I'm sure someone may have noticed I'm pretty good at. Did you know that while visiting New Orleans, Louisiana in 2004, while Davies and a friend (Suzanne Despies) were walking down a street when a vehicle pulled up beside them, one occupant got out and demanded Despies's purse. She gave him the purse, and the schmuck ran. Davies chased him and got a bullet in the leg for his trouble.

In case you're wondering if justice is alive and well in The Big Easy, it looks a bit dim on that front. Not only was Davies criticized by local gendarmerie, but the aforementioned ‘schmuck’ has admitted his involvement in the crime and the prosecutor’s office has still twice dropped the case. WAY TO KEEP THE BAD GUYS OFF THE STREETS, GENTS! (To be fair, he probably shouldn't have chased the guy.)

OK, back to Americana. It's got an overall cowboy-referenced theme that occasionally pops up, and the songs are generally about what tends to happen as you age. There is inevitably some disillusionment.

That disillusionment can be with regard to personal relationships, your view of other relationships, and your initial beliefs about a person, place, or thing. In the case of Americana, I think Davies addresses all of these things. He begins by chasing The American Dream. And by the time the CD has finished, he realizes that someone somewhere had misunderstood or misrepresented something.

The objective behind the efforts of recording artists is often to "land a deal", and that's what track number two is about. Again, the lyrics show an astute understanding of the situation, which explains the disillusionment there as well.

"Isn't it marvelous, fraudulent, bogus and unreal? Today I'm a bullshit millionaire, feeling really fake. Pretending to be somebody while the credit's good. Go out to LA, strike myself a deal and be part of the American dream."

Vocal ranges approaching tenor have never been Davies's forte, but with his unique interpretations it never really mattered. Higher ranges still seem to be the only area he has any trouble with, and it doesn't seem to have gotten any less apparent with age. Again, it doesn't matter. Any faltering just seems to fit and make the lyrics seem even more like a storyteller as much as a singer. Davies is good at both.

My favorite track – at least for right now – is number three: "Poetry". A relationship just starting out is filled with mystery, excitement, and all kinds of intangibles. Those things are summed up IN "Poetry" AS poetry. He and his significant other spent time reading poetry out loud to each other. Then, she left for a wealthy guy better able to care for her material needs and "…she settled for someone who's not so hard to please; without all the fire and desire and the mystery. But I ask myself ‘Where is the poetry?'"

Keyboardist Karen Grotberg provides backing – and sometimes accompanying – vocals on a few songs. She's got a very good voice, either alone or when played against Davies's voice in their trade-off vocal tunes.

Other tracks and a very brief summary of each (brief, because I don't want to ruin the story, and every track on the CD is incorporated into the story) follows.

In "Message from the Road", the inevitabilities of extended, distant travel and life on the road are discussed, and the message carried in "A Place in Your Heart" is much the same.

"The Mystery Room" is just about life in general: start to (near?) finish. 'Yeah, my heart's still beating. Yeah, there’s no retreating."

A bit of a tip of the hat to an old friend follows in the track "Silent Movie", where the timelessness of music is briefly discussed.

Next up, "Rock 'n' Roll Cowboys on the ol' wagon train. You've had your time but it won't come again." "Your time's passed, now everyone asks for your version of history."

Personally, I think the next tune - "Change for Change" – outlines the progression of do-gooders from the initial phase of honestly wanting to help and trying to help to an eventual phase where they realize the effort is wasted, the point is moot, and now it's about them rather than everyone else.

"The Man Upstairs" is a person who accidentally helped Davies write the song that was rumbling around in his head at 3AM.

Discussed in "I've Heard That Beat Before" is a somewhat soured take on relationships coupled with the fact that no matter where we are or how different we are, we're also all a lot more alike than maybe we want to admit.

"A Long Drive Home to Tarzana" reflects on a drive or a walk or a something we've all participated in that winds up as an uncomfortable companionship – at least for the time being.

Do you have any mistaken ideas about anything? Any dreams you had – impressions of how a thing or a place would be? That's what Davies sorts through in "The Great Highway".

"The Invaders", on the other hand, takes the listener back to what may have been the first great disillusionment of the musician in love with and searching for the great American dream. Give it a listen. You'll see what I mean.

And finally, the 15th track finishes off the latest story in Ray Davies catalog. "Wings of Fantasy" also caps off the story that the whole CD has just told. It's where the end credits would probably run had this been a movie.

I always stick around till the end credits finish. It drives some people crazy, but I always want to see who did what, and I ALWAYS like to see who was involved in creating the soundtrack that set the tone for the movie I just watched.

Davies is able to tell a story and run the end credits without the listener ever having seen a thing. Some people can do that; tell a story with such imagination, feeling, and imagery that you feel like you've seen a movie.

You haven't. You've just been fortunate enough to have heard Ray Davies just doing his thing again.

-Mike Kimmel


Wonderboy said...

This in brilliant Ray at is best and all his past work is of genius level so you know how good this must be! If there is an justice and poetry in this world and the music industry AMERICANA will be getting a grammy nomination at win the award in any category it is in at the ceremony in 2018 - god save the village green, god save Ray Davies, he;s not like everybody else and remains the undisputed world champion of songwriters!

Wonderboy said...

This in brilliant Ray at his best and all his past work is of genius level so you know how good this must be! If there is any justice and poetry in this world and in the music industry AMERICANA will be getting a grammy nomination and win the award in any category it is in at the ceremony in 2018 - god save the village green, god save Ray Davies, he;s not like everybody else and remains the undisputed world champion of songwriters!

Anonymous said...

I am a dedicated Kinks?ray Davies fan and I have to say that Americana is the best album that I have heard for at least 10 years. The lyrics are what you would expect from Ray, exceptional and the music is just out of this world. His backing band, The Jayhawks are a perfect match for his music, voice and lyrics. Cant wait for part 2 of this album.