ALBUM REVIEW: Ray Davies mines his past on 'Americana'
When he was a young man, Ray Davies wrote like an old man.
In his early 20s, he had already started penning odes to the way things were as the leader of The Kinks. "Where Have All the Good Times Gone," "The Last of the Steam-Powered Trains," "The Village Green Preservation Society" — these songs sat next to other ones about Queen Victoria and drinking tea and lost youth. It was as if Ray Davies had been born a wistful, sentimental codger.
Now, Ray Davies is 72. He's an actual old man, with actual memories of people and places and times passed. On "Americana," his new solo album and companion piece to his memoir of the same name that came out a few years back, he mines his real-life past for lyrical fodder. It's territory he's gone into before — on his last album of new material, 2007's "Working Man's Cafe," Davies wrote about his experience getting shot by a mugger in New Orleans, for instance, and he's written extensively about the perils of show business on numerous albums. But "Americana" is the first time he's done such a personal song cycle about his own life gone by.
It's a concept album of sorts, which should be no surprise to Kinks fans familiar with his run of story-based vaudevillian '70s albums, but the way that Davies is telling his tale here is new for him. It makes sense that he's titled this album "Americana," as it very much evokes the same emotions as that book. Davies is clearly at a place in his life where he's looking back at what he did and saw, and he's interested in talking about it all.
"My baby brother and me / in the land of the free," Davies sings on the title track and opener, referencing his Kinks bandmate, sparring partner and sibling Dave. The song tonally reflects the Davies brothers' wide-eyed excitement to be touring America back in the British Invasion days, when bands from across the pond were all the rage. "Runnin' high on inspiration / taken from those Wild West heroes / full of expectations of the road / on that winding trail to somewhere."
It's the first of many references to the picture the young Ray Davies had in his mind's eye of America — a world that, to him, was filled with black-and-white vistas and dusty cowboys and endless roads. He was a kid from Muswell Hill in England whose only contact with the U.S. had been through movies and his radio and whatever he could read, and it's that naïve young man that Davies keeps casting his writerly gaze onto here.
"The Deal" addresses Davies' dreams of decadence and success in such a way that it's not entirely obvious if he's singing about himself pre-fame or post-fame, but it's made clear that the incisive Davies who once wrote almost a whole album skewering the record industry ("Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround") is still with us when he drops the couplet "Isn't it wonderful, marvelous, utterly surreal / totally fabulous, fraudulent, bogus and unreal" in a sunny voice.
The mostly low-key sound of the album is provided largely by Minnesota's Jayhawks, who were selected perhaps because of their own history of playing music that is often itself described as "Americana." It's an inspired choice on Davies' part, and he even cedes control of the microphone at points to that group's Karen Grotberg, who on "Message From the Road" seems to embody a loving voice on the other end of an international call.
In total, though, the record isn't a patch on a large amount of the Kinks' brilliant discography. Truth is, it's an interesting work from a man who has been around and seen a lot, but the music from the period Davies is looking back on is better, livelier and more melodic. There's no denying that he sounds his age, but given that he's always been an old soul, it looks OK on him.
Artist: Ray Davies
Recorded at: Fluff Studios and Konk Studios
Produced by: Ray Davies
Personnel: Ray Davies (vocals, guitar, piano), Gary Louris (guitar, vocals), Marc Perlman (bass, vocals), Karen Grotberg (vocals, keyboards), Tim O'Reagan (drums, vocals), other guests
Listen to "Poetry" at duluthnewstribune.com.