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Muswell Hillbillies

By Zack Taylor
January 12, 2005
Rating: 9.5

Ray Davies has a knack for pulling a hit out of his pocket at just the right time. While his last three albums of the '60s were all artistic triumphs, they failed to shift many units.  Come 1970, just as the Kinks’ contract was expiring, Ray put a ditty called “Lola” on the table and let the bidding begin.  Imagine the faces of the giddy RCA execs after they cued up the album—purchased with a million dollar advance—only to hear “This is the age of machinery/A mechanical nightmare/The wonderful world of technology/Napalm, hydrogen bombs, biological warfare.”

Muswell Hillbillies, so named for the Davies’ home district of Muswell Hill, London and the popular Beverly Hillbillies TV show, was the dark flip side of Ray’s sunny '60s hits, cast in country-ish settings full of slide, dobro, accordion, and a new mock-Dixieland horn section. Deeply rooted in the working class, alternating wit and withering clarity, the record touches on themes of bureaucracy, insanity, addiction, and socialist politics.   “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues” introduced – and how! – the horns behind the story of Ray’s mentally unbalanced father.  Ray’s “Holiday,” sung as if he had a speech impediment, finds him suffering as much on the beach as in the city he had fled. A middle class executive is pushed over the brink by his “selfish wife’s fanatical ambition,” (a familiar Davies theme) brought down by the demon alcohol and a floozy who would hang around for several more albums.  The album’s theme song “Complicated Life” was originally structured as a suicide note, thankfully toned down to a litany of activities to give up for the sake of his health.  The slide-drenched dirge concludes that “Life is overrated,” the slide-drenched dirge concludes.

Bureaucratic “people in grey” invade the album’s second half, determined to improve society by literally tearing down cherished ways of life; a girl is undone by a spiv (another new addition to the Davies cast of characters) and sent off to jail; and empty lives are sustained by futile fantasies of Hollywood B movies.  Steadfast through it all is old grandma, who staunchly holds tea as the elixir to all problems.   (Aside: this reviewer never failed to deeply amuse himself by calling out “Have a Cuppa Tea!” for this number, alas without success, at Kinks concerts in the 1980s.)

The knife cuts deepest with “Uncle Son” who “loved with his heart” and “worked with his hands,” an ordinary old bloke who suffers just the same through the various cures for society’s ills proposed by liberals, conservatives, and socialists alike. When Ray sings “Bless you, Uncle Son, they won’t forget you when the revolution comes,” he’s in character as a political huckster.  The proceedings close with the upbeat Chet Atkins-influenced title track recounting the true story of his family’s forced move to Muswell Hill, where, in fact, Davies descendants may be found to this day.

Yes, those RCA execs must have wondered what the hell happened to the sunny afternoon. Superficially, this album is a bummer. But to real fans of Ray Davies’ artistic vision, it is the most significant social statement he ever made.  Placing all the songs in a countrified musical setting brilliantly elaborates the hillbilly metaphor, and the stories tell the real truth with such astonishing power and poignancy discerning listeners may agree after all life is overrated.  But in the end, it’s the only one we’ve got.

To listen to some soundclips from Muswell Hillbillies or to purchase it, click on: Muswell Hillbillies

The Kinks Are The Village Green Presevation Society

By Zack Taylor
September 10, 2004
Rating: 10.0

The better the Kinks album, the worse it fares commercially. To confirm this corollary, one need look no further than The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, at once the band’s finest artistic achievement and the only Kinks album that failed to chart in any country. At the time of this album’s release in 1968, Kinks leader Ray Davies was already established as the premier pop chronicler of ordinary English life. Yet despite a stunning run of eight consecutive top-ten UK singles ending with “Autumn Almanac,” a paean to the street on which he lived, the restless Davies remained unsatisfied, feeling limited by the single format. An innovator and conceptualist from day one, Davies pushed the envelope a logical step further to compose an album-length dairy of pastoral village life, a cohesive set of stories-in-song about the people, places and ways of life in the English tradition. The tunes are lively, but gentle, hook-laden, yet somehow non-commercial. They are nostalgic and whimsical, tempered with a hint of melancholy and menace. The opening title track states the theme: bucolic village life should be preserved against sterilizing modernization (a theme he would revisit time and again), and also sets the musical tone: intricate interplay amongst acoustic and electric guitars, chiming piano and harpsichord, and gorgeous falsetto harmonies. The 14 cuts maintain this ambience through charming, insightful sketches and scenarios. Key tracks like “Picture Book,” “Big Sky,” “Animal Farm,” and “Village Green,” among several others on the album, are flat-out among the most poignant, finely-crafted pop songs ever recorded. Thirty years on, TVGPS is finally getting its due in critical circles, but appallingly few lovers of fine music are even aware of this gem.

Addendum: This was an extremely fertile era for Davies, and the album was subjected to major track re-shuffle before its release, with many great songs falling by the wayside. A recent double-CD reissue adding most of these leftover bits is well worth the investment.

To listen to some soundclips from The Village Green Presevation Society or to purchase it, click on: Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society


By Matt Gregersen
December 1, 2003
Rating: 10.0

When Arthur was first released, critics immediately dismissed it as a knock-off of the Who’s Tommy, which was released earlier the same year. Over the years, however, it was quietly grown in recognition to the deserving, under-appreciated masterpiece that it is today. Nonetheless, it is a rock opera, or concept album, if you prefer. I’ll spare you the story of the album, since most concept album’s stories sound lame when they are tried to be explained literally. Besides, it doesn’t matter. Arthur is a fantastic album. Before the Kinks struck gold with catchy hooks and pop-formula hits in the late ‘70s into the ‘80s (Misfits, Give the People What they Want), they were an art-rock band, and Arthur is the album where the two formats began to blend. Kinks musical-mastermind and first-class songwriter Ray Davies manages to be eloquent and melodic without the use of lyrical clichés, and musically the group is as tight as ever. On nearly every song on the album, there is a take-off near the middle where the band finally explodes into hard-rock territory. This proves most beneficial on “Shangri-La,” one of Davies’ finest, and proves his stature as a songwriter who can mine musical inspiration from the mundane (“You can go outside and polish your car/or sit by the fire in your Shangri-La”). “Brainwashed” is another track from the cream of the crop, with brother Dave Davies serving up delicious riff after riff. “Mr. Churchill Says,” featuring Dave’s finest, bluesiest guitar playing anywhere and Ray’s thin, wavering voice filling the holes, is a satire on the ridiculousness of war and politicians’ justification for rations (“And all the garden gates and empty cans are gonna make us win…”). See what I mean? It sounds lame when tried to be explained literally. Just pick up the album. You won’t be disappointed.

To listen to some soundclips from Arthur or to purchase it, click on: KINKS: ARTHUR

Face To Face

By Alex Short
March 18, 2003
Rating: 8.5

If there was ever a great record by an overlooked band, this is it. This is the strongest album by The Kinks. A band more cherished for their era defying singles as opposed to what they laid down on the long player. It is on this album that the Kinks really gave the listener the opportunity to hear how far they come from the days of “You Really Got Me” and “All Day And All Of The Night” Ray Davis was now promoting himself (through his music) as the outspoken thinker for the common man. With all this in mind, came Face To Face. A record which didn’t sell too well but one which showed the Kinks in a new light and one which thrust the bands new direction onto the listener.

The album however, kicks off with a song called “Party Line” Sung by Dave Davis; it’s about a guy pleading with the girl he is on the phone to. Pleading for her to step forward and show her identity. It’s a fairly simple song, but it’s the songs subject, which again showed the change. Songs like “Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home” and “Most Exclusive Residence For Sale” were tailor made for 1966, one of two years which revolutionized music. Like 1956, 10 years earlier when Elvis exploded into the picture with “Heat Break Hotel”

You could make the claim that 90% of the songs on this record are strictly period pieces. This is true to an extent, with songs like “Dandy” and “Fancy” “Dandy” being a bit of a jolly comedy number. My two favorite songs here are “Too Much On My Mind” and “Little Miss Queen Of Darkness” The first song is the sort of song I feel I cant relate too when I am feeling down and well, when I have a lot on my mind. It’s a nice slow paced song, which crawls along allowing you to keep up with its thought provocative lyrics. The latter number is again, a song, which I and anyone else who has trouble with they’re opposite sex from time to time, can easily relate too.

There is a hit single on this album. Along with the 1967s “Waterloo Sunset”, “Sunny Afternoon” is perhaps the most loved and fondly remembered Kinks song. Its one of those songs which continuously keeps cropping up on those cheap supermarket “Best Of The 60s” compilations. It is a nice song with fantastic lyrics. Other highlights on Face To Face include two faster paced songs. “A House In The Country” and “Holiday In Waikiki” Both are similar in musical style too “Party Line”. “A House In The Country” lent its name to a UK number 1 single for a Brit Pop band called Blur. Around the 1994 – 1966 period a few bands briefly lent a hand of gratitude to Ray Davies and his Musswell Hill companions. For a short period, the Kinks were getting the true recognition they were long overdue.

Face To Face is a masterpiece of sorts. A little dated sound wise – its like the ragged brother to other classic 1966 albums like The Beatles Revolver or The Rolling Stones 14 track mid 60s tour de force, Aftermath

To listen to some soundclips from Face To Face or to purchase it, click on: Face to Face [Extra Tracks]

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