It’s been more than a while since Ray Davies (or, rather, Sir Ray Davies now) has released an official solo album. After 2007’s, Working Man’s Café, the Kink took a break from new material to revisit his old band’s catalog, cranking out The Kinks Choral Collection and a duets album entitled See My Friends. Ten years later, Davies is finally releasing his latest solo effort, Americana, on Legacy Recordings.
To say Americana is entirely new material is a bit deceiving. This album, long in the works, is a compilation of lyrics the master songwriter has been gathering for years.
This album is a companion to Davies’s 2013 memoir of the same title; he picks up the Kinks’ story after his 1994 memoir, X-Ray: The Unauthorized Autobiography, describing the band’s life on the road as they fought to reclaim their fan base in America after having been banned nearly five years as well as coming to terms with the 2004 shooting that nearly took his life. The lyrics to many of the songs featured are included in the Americana book as narrative devices, and much of the prose from the book is included as brief introductory tracks on the album.
Americana is clearly very personal, not just because it’s based on his memoir, but because it’s a heartfelt reflection on his relationship with America, a country that’s not his home, but by which he’s been adopted through his long music career, influences, and belief in all the hope America continues to promise in the face of international and homegrown turmoil. His viewpoint as an outsider looking in and occasionally traveling through, as reflected in a great percentage of this album, provides a refreshing and unique interpretation of what the “American dream” is to a Brit.
The songs are not entirely unheard to Kinks fans who have been following Davies’s solo career, either. When I saw Davies perform two years ago in England, he previewed “Rock ’n’ Roll Cowboys” and “I’ve Heard That Beat Before,” sounding very much the same as they appear on this new release. The former is a particularly poignant track about the aging and the grander idea of musicians as legends who live on the edge of real-life and fabricated stardom. The latter describes a couples’ spat in the way only Davies could, by juxtaposing it to the beat of a song, suggesting how Davies’s mind is constantly in a state of musical creativeness and anything is subject to inspire a tune.
To say this is a solo work is also somewhat misleading. Davies is joined by his long-time guitarist Bill Shanley, and perhaps more intriguingly, American alt-country band the Jayhawks. Admittedly my knowledge of the band is limited to one song of theirs I constantly hear on the radio (and which is actually very good — “Quiet Corners and Empty Spaces” from last year’s Paging Mr. Proust), but their sound perfectly fits into the soundscape that Davies has painted for himself over his 50=plus-year career.
This collaboration is especially notable on tracks like “A Place in Your Heart,” a tune recycled from his “80 Days” musical project of the late ’80s inspired by Jules Verne. With the Jayhawks joining on vocals, particularly keyboardist Karen Grotberg’s, the song takes on a jug band-esque rhythm; the vocal harmonies are incredibly reminiscent of the Mamas and the Papas, and it’s perhaps my favorite track on the album.
“Message from the Road,” mostly sung by Grotberg, is a sad ballad of homesickness as well as the grueling nature of show business not just for the artist, but the loved ones often left behind. It’s deeply emotional, featuring minimal instrumentation. These female vocal duets are heavily reminiscent of the Kinks’ Preservation albums, which have the same kind of American-folk influence, as well as the Kinks’ most Appalachian working-class album, Muswell Hillbillies.
“The Mystery Room” is another favorite off this album. It’s gritty, haunting, and seductive in its darkness; it evokes a menacing vibe not unlike a previous track of Davies’, “Voodoo Walk” off Working Man’s Café. “Change for Change” is another musically bare-bones song that’s industrial and ominous, with a definite New Orleans flare. It’s
like listening to a heavy metal band without the heavy metal, if that possibly makes any sense. It’s a warning for the future of mankind.
Other tracks on the album are less memorable, such as the title track. It’s not a bad song, but it’s a slow start to the album, which picks up a few songs in. A reordering of the tracks may have been a better choice.
“The Deal” has its moments, but sometimes comes off hokey, particularly with the inclusion of the word “groovy” which never seems “in” or relevant in language anymore outside of a nostalgic context. “A Long Drive Home to Tarzana” had to grow on me; the track is drowsy and perhaps a bit too “Jimmy Buffett” for me in some respects, but the slow droning quality of the track has a purpose. The song evokes the long drive of the lyrics, the winding, often directionless, voyage of trying to find home when you’re constantly on the road.
But for a truly affectionate and nostalgic song, which fans know Davies best for, “The Invaders” is sure to please. It’s a slightly tongue-in-cheek look back at the British Invasion and the American attitude towards bands like the Kinks as they dominated the airwaves while challenging the clean-cut American aesthetic.
Americana is a definite must-have album for any fan of Ray Davies or the Kinks in general. With many more hits than misses, it’s an album that’s sure to engender a clashing mix of wanderlust and longing for familiarity in any listener.
Ray Davies’s Americana is out April 21. Pre-order your copy on Amazon.