Album review: Ray Davies is still in nostalgia mode on "Our Country"
Last year's Ray Davies album seemed for all the world like it could likely be the last one of his career. The head Kink hadn't put out much in the decade prior except for an album where he played his old stuff with Metallica, Bruce Springsteen and, uh, Jackson Browne, and another album where he played his old stuff with a chorus. "Americana," which acted as a companion to Davies' memoir of the same name, was a record that was quintessentially Ray Davies, with lyrical, witty melodic patches mixed with some seriously dopey Broadway-musical moments. But, for the most part, even though it was somewhat forgettable, the Jayhawks-backed platter served to show that Davies still had creative life in him.
Surprisingly, Davies announced that album's sequel, this spring. "Our Country: Americana Act II" is a true companion piece to its predecessor, right down to the album-cover image of Davies' silhouette watching the sun set over a distant horizon. The music was largely cut during the same sessions that produced the first volume's music, and the Jayhawks are back as backing band. Basically, if you liked "Americana," here's more of it.
If you didn't care much for that record, the bad news is: here's more of it. More of the clumsy spoken-word bits that reference things that happened to Davies on the road 50 years ago, when the Kinks first came to the United States to tour. More schmaltzy, dinner-club music that touches on jazz and pop and country but never really commits to any one style. More of the America that Davies fetishizes, but that never actually existed.
There are definitely problems, here, just as there have been problems with about every record Davies has made since, oh, 1972's "Everybody's in Show-Biz" or 1973's "Preservation, Act 1." But there are also great moments that serve as a reminder that Davies' songbook is among the best that pop music ever produced, and that the Kinks spent most of the '60s putting out material that often matched the Beatles' output in its poetry, creativity and melodicism.
Something like "We Will Get There" is just gorgeous, a ghostly, wispy acoustic lullaby featuring Jayhawk Karen Grotberg duetting with Davies. It's romantic without being lovely-dovey, and it's hopeful without reservation.
On the rock side of things, there's "The Take," which finds Davies completely ceding the mic at times to Grotberg, who takes on a Chrissie Hynde-like tone as she declares that she's going to "get me an icon, tonight." It's a strutting hard rock track not unlike the Kinks' late-70s Arista material: a little dumb, but sturdy. "I met her at a meet and greet after a show in Minneapolis/St. Paul," Davies says, sounding like Grandpa describing meeting Grandma. He gets a little more detailed, talking "Scandinavian origins." Before long, the Jayhawks and Davies are just singing the word "Minnesota" repeatedly. It's kind of a kick to hear the great British songwriter doing a whole song about the state, but, in the end, it's mostly just an older guy reliving past sexual conquests more than anything, which is a mite gross.
Davies sounds a bit tired on this record, too — his enunciation is slightly slow and mushy, and, frankly, he's starting to sound like a guy who's 74 years old. You can't ding him for aging, but it makes a record that already seems like a walk through Davies' photo album even more bittersweet. If the "Americana" project is indeed his last big move — and Davies' recent claims that the Kinks are finally going to reunite after 25 years apart might make this not the case — it's not a bad way to go out. At the very least, the fact that Ray Davies is still around and making music is enough.
Artist: Ray Davies
Album: "Our Country: Americana Act II"
Produced by: Ray Davies, Guy Massey, and John Jackson
Personnel: Ray Davies (vocals, guitar, piano), other guests in various capacities