By Mark Guarino
Now that disaster tours have become an unfortunate part of the New Orleans economy post Hurricane Katrina, a new song by the British songwriter Ray Davies, who briefly lived in the city until recently, feels particularly tailor-made: “I’m just another tourist/checking out the slums/with my plastic VISA/drinking with my chums” (“The Tourist”).
Class warfare and the plight of the downtrodden are two things Davies, 61, knows something about, as they’ve been themes in his music since the Kinks, his band he created with his guitarist brother Dave, arrived in 1964. When the first Kinks single landed in the U.S., they were another dangerous band of boys in the British Invasion era, taking American blues and handing it back to us with heavy sneers and plenty of revved-up guitar distortion. With its two-chord riffing and furious guitar solo, “You Really Got Me” defined a new sound for rock, back when bands were forced into neat suits to distract from their aggression.
But as time went on the Kinks proved they had less in common with bands like the Animals, the Who or the Rolling Stones and more in common with social satirists like Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward. As the principal songwriter, Davies wrote songs written from the perspective of ordinary pub drinker, housewife or young couple trying to break out of small town life. While British bands of their era moved into psychedelic rock, created heavy metal and later, went on cosmic odysseys afforded by progressive rock, the Kinks sounded as if sealed inside a time capsule. American country music, British vaudeville and folk were influences Davies used to create concept albums about British country life, customs and the working class. While many bands worked overtime to impress American audiences in adopting Haight-Ashbury culture, the Kinks were decidedly British in every way, to the affectation in Davies’ voice to lyrics that read like a roadmap of London and the British countryside.
“Muswell Hillbillies,” “The Village Green Preservation Society,” “Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)” and other albums of that era endeared Davies and the Kinks to coming generations of pop songwriters. (A 2002 tribute album to Davies included covers by Fountains of Wayne, Queens of the Stone Age, Yo La Tengo and Matthew Sweet.) But the Kinks never had the breakthrough success of their peers. By the time the 1980s rolled around the band tried to beef up its sound and write more singles-oriented albums, but besides from the 1983 MTV hit “Come Dancing,” the band was relegated to cult status. Line-up changes and legendary squabbling between the Davies brothers (and you thought Oasis was original?) helped put the band to rest by the early 1990s.
Upon the band’s demise, Davies took the nostalgia circuit with “Storyteller,” a tour and album that featured Kinks songs with spoken word. It never sounded as inspired as “Other People’s Lives” (V2), his first collection of new songs in 11 years, in stores this week.
“Other People’s Lives” is a combination of the Kinks’ “Misfits”/”Sleepwalker” era, when Davies was writing straightforward rock songs, with the character narratives of the band’s earlier rock operas. These are some of his most direct songs peppered with grit. “After the Fall” brandishes power chords with Davies’ voice rising with defiance. Amid the chugging rhythm, booming organ and horns of “Run Away From Time,” he addresses fighting against the coming dark, a reoccurring theme. “Time is the avenger/but why should we just surrender to it?,” he asks, singing.
Charm factor is high. The songs on this album frequently, and with humor, address the aggravations of daily living. “Next Door Neighbor” is a throwback to the ramshackle country of “Muswell Hillbillies,” addressed to the tweed suits of timeless suburbia. The lyrics of “All She Wrote” come from the narrator reading a break-up letter from a girlfriend. “Now you’re free to make your play for that big Australian barmaid,” he’s told. The most cheerful song about daily depression is “Is There Life After Breakfast?” which asks, “don’t turn into a total embarrassment for your friends and family/go out of bed, the whole day’s ahead, so take the pills and drink your tea.”
Davies can’t avoid having that winsome humor turn into cranky diatribes (“Stand Up Comic”), but when he’s at his best, he takes middle ground, smirking at the foibles of the people in his songs, but not without deep affection for them.
Davies lived in New Orleans during part of the writing of these 13 new songs. “I found I fitted in somewhere for the first time since I left Muswell Hill,” he says in the accompanying press materials, referring to the London suburb he grew up in and inspired so many of his songs. In January 2004, he was baptized by fire when he was shot in the French Quarter after pursuing a robber who snatched his companion’s purse.
His experience is threaded into this album. “The Tourist” is built on looped beats, becoming a stroll through a city’s neighborhood where entertainment is at the expense of poverty. Davies also references classic Southern soul. “Thanksgiving day” could have been cut at the legendary Memphis label Stax, with its wash of church organ, choir, horns and flickering guitar. Although his effort to reproduce sound never exactly hits its mark, his take on the uniquely American holiday as a day for lost souls gives it renewal long past the turkey dinner.