Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"Merry Christmas, Baby" / Charles Brown & Bonnie Raitt

I'm all juiced for Christmas songs. I love it all, carols and schmaltzy Tin Pan Alley standards and endless rounds of The Nutcracker, the whole shebang. 'Tis the season to hear Elvis croon "Blue Christmas," Dion rock around the Christmas tree, and Nat King Cole yearn for chestnuts roasting on an open fire. It's worth wading through all the sticky-sweet "Silent Nights" and "White Christmases" to find gems like Johnny Mathis's "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" and -- yes, I'll confess -- James Taylor's ultra-sappy "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." I even get a thrill from hearing Dean Martin slosh his merry way through "Baby It's Cold Outside," or -- a true test of the Christmas spirit -- the infamous duet of Bing Crosby and David Bowie on "The Little Drummer Boy." Bring it on.

Of course, a little rock 'n' roll sass can do wonders for even the silliest holiday standards. My three favorite Christmas albums of all time have to be the Phil Spector Christmas album (long live the Ronettes' "Frosty the Snowman" and Darlene Love's "Marshmallow World"!), a seriously rockin' compilation of vintage R&R called Hot Rod Holiday, and Christmas With the Beach Boys (dig that magic moment when "Little Saint Nick" almost morphs into "Run Run Rudolph"!). Granted, a lot of dreck has been served up over the years as well. Apparently you couldn't be signed to the Motown label without turning out at least one LP of holiday cheese, and over the years every Nashville star had to ladle out a serving of Christmas treacle at some point. Don't even mention that Bob Dylan Christmas album to me, either. But what really leaves me cold are those self-righteous Very Special Christmas all-star charity things. Do we really need to hear Madonna sing "Santa Baby" or Sting twiddle his lute on "I Saw Three Ships"? Okay, I take it back about Sting; that boy does English folk like nobody's business. But all those Bon Jovi and Eric Clapton and Sheryl Crow over-achieving renditions of the same old carols and standards -- let's kick it up to eleven! -- are just too tedious.

Here's the exception, though. The old R&B standard "Merry Christmas, Baby" (not the same song as the Beach Boy's "Merry Christmas Baby") is performed on the second Very Special Christmas album by singer/pianist Charles Brown, the same guy who did the original back in 1947 with Johnny Moore's Three Blazers (Johnny Moore wrote the song with Lou Baxter). A top ten hit in 1947, this song has been covered by everybody from Chuck Berry and B. B. King to Hanson and Bruce Springsteen (also on one of these Very Special Christmas discs). But the song really belongs to Charles Brown, and it's a joy to hear him update his recording. He's paired up with Bonnie Raitt, who spearheaded a revival of his career in the late 1980s; they recorded this track in 1992, a few years before his death in 1999. I'm betting this wouldn't have qualified for this all-star project without Bonnie's presence, but she brings enough blues cred with her that nobody dared mess with the old-school groove of this track.

Like a lot of modern Christmas songs, this one hasn't got a thing to do with Jesus; even Santa only makes a brief off-screen appearance. Mostly it's a love song, a contented jazzy stroll by a man who wakes up Christmas morning happy with his baby. (Translation: He got some holiday nookie.) It's so laidback, I don't even feel my usual impatience with the long solos in the instrumental break -- it's Christmas morning, we've got the day off, who's rushing anywhere? Bonnie and Charles turn it into a duet, which works great -- I love the bit where he sings, "I would love to kiss you baby" and she replies, invitingly, "Well, I'm standing right here underneath the mistletoe."

Christmas trappings? Who needs 'em? All this couple has is "good music on my radio" and each other. Yeah, there are presents there, but they're almost irrelevant; they're simply proof of affection. It almost doesn't matter what's inside the tinsel and paper. There's no decorations, no big fancy dinner, no floods of friends and relatives to raise the stress levels. It's just the two of them, and it's bliss.

In the last verse, he lazily sings, "I haven’t had a drink this mornin’ baby / But I’m all lit up like a Christmas tree." I love that image. So here's my Christmas wish for all of you -- whatever it takes, may you be lit up like a Christmas tree on Friday. Joy to the world indeed.

Friday, December 18, 2009

"Tell It Like It Is" / Aaron Neville

I finally got to see Pirate Radio the other day -- went by myself to an afternoon showing down in the East Village, only two other people in the theater -- this movie seems doomed for obscurity. I loved it, though. How could I not love a movie with "All Day and All Of the Night" blasting over the opening credits?

Along with all the British Invasion classics on the soundtrack -- the Kinks, the Who, Dusty Springfield, the Hollies, the Troggs, the Tremeloes, the Easybeats -- there was loads of American music of the era as well. I came straight home from the movie intent on downloading Otis Redding's super-soulful "These Arms of Mine." But then I got lost wandering around the archives of early 60s soul; when I woke up, this Aaron Neville song was glued to my brain instead.

Not that I'm complaining. Forget the Neville Brothers; I love Aaron's small-label stuff from the early 60s. Everybody covered this song eventually -- Percy Sledge, George Benson, Etta James, even Otis himself -- but Aaron's original 1966 recording is still the definitive version. Note how the low-fi production values muted Neville's distinctive vocal stutter, so it was just texture instead of an annoying tic.

Aaron's tenor vocal coats this song in caramel, skimming lightly over unstressed words, hitting the main verbs and nouns like a hammered dulcimer. That langorous beat is the ultimate slow dance tempo, yet the lyrics follow the rhythms of conversation (it's only one step from here to Barry White's bedroom murmur). He's speaking intimately to his lover, chiding her: "If you want / Something to play with / Go and find yourself a toy / Baby my time / Is too expensive / And I'm not a little boy." That last line dives right into sexiness; sure, his voice is high as a boy's, but that trembling quaver tells you he's got a man's passion, and he will not be denied.

The saying "Tell it like it is" got picked up as the Sixties wore on, becoming a political catch-phrase, but in this song, it seems like the singer's speaking out not from courage but from desperation. He oscillates back and forth between accusing ("If you are serious / Don't play with my heart / It makes me furious") and cajoling ("But if you want me to love you / Then a baby I will, / Girl you know that I will"). This girl is driving him crazy. He may be playing the lord and master, but she's the one who holds the cards.

In the bridge, he falls back on the tried-and-true carpe diem argument that men have used for centuries to lure a woman into bed: "Life is too short to have sorrow / You may be here today and gone tomorrow / You might as well get what you want / So go on and live, baby go on and live." Horns moan in the background, cranking up the temperature.

So what is it that makes this song so sexy? Sure, there's the emotive tremor of Aaron Neville's vocal, but don't overlook that lagging stroll tempo, the shuffling drums, or those repeated unresolved chords, holding off chord resolution time and again, while desire builds underneath. He's quivering on the threshold, like a time bomb set to go off. Speed the thing up and you lose it; get too raw and raunchy and you've lost it again. Listening to this song, I am reminded that soul music first got its name from the deep emotion it expressed. I grew up on the slick products of Motown -- and I'll never stop loving them -- but man, this is the real thing: A guy, a girl, and raging hormones. That's telling it like it is.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"Magic Marker" /
Monsters of Folk

I bought this CD in early October, but I lent it to my college-age son -- and presto, just like magic, it disappeared into his music collection. I finally retrieved it at Thanksgiving, but by then I was deep into a self-induced Kinks coma and couldn't listen to anything else. In fact, thanks to the hangover from Kinks Month, I still haven't been able to listen to much new music lately. But I left Monsters of Folk on rotation on my CD player, and this week it suddenly jumped into the forefront. I'm digging it now, just as I suspected I would.

Background: Monsters of Folk is what's nowadays called a "side project" -- what we used to call a "super group" -- composed of Matt Ward (who records as M. Ward), Jim James from My Morning Jacket (herein given the endearingly goofy pseudonym Yim Yames), and Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis from Bright Eyes. I already had all of them on my iTunes, but I'd never have thought of mixing them together -- Bright Eyes' breathy pop cleverness, My Morning Jacket's rootsy earnestness, and M. Ward's snarky existential indie-folk seem to live in different realms. The first few spins, I felt compelled to tag each song as a Matt song, a Conor song, or a Yim song. But now I've relaxed into its overall genial vibe -- their collaboration seems more like Travelin' Wilburys than, say, Little Village -- and as each talent steps up to the mike, I can enjoy his distinctive idiom for what it is.

"Magic Marker" -- one of the Yim songs -- feels like the heart of the album for me. It's such a mellow, retro-sounding song, the first time I heard it I thought it was a cover of some well-loved old favorite (from some reason, I keep imagining it's late Graham Parker). Acoustic, with a gently rollicking rhythm, it pours out like maple syrup on pancakes. Like a lot of James' songs, the lyrics are a little opaque, but I like that; that laidback simplicity is deceptive.

There's something deeply reassuring about the chorus: "Ordinary don't mean nothin' no how / Look what's ordinary now." (I imagine Yim, in his flannel shirt and beard, flicking around the TV channels in disgust.) Who would want to be "normal" in a world where Lady Gaga and Russell Brand can appear on network TV? And I love the chorus's next image: "It's got a magic marker stain / On its face and it needs a shower." I can look around my desk right now and see papers defaced where some Sharpie has bled through. It's a striking visual detail that perfectly defines the soiled, spoiled nature of modern culture. Yim may be a Young Codger, but he's awfully sincere.

The first couple of verses baffle me, as if I just stumbled into an ongoing conversation. He's talking about some "frozen kid" (himself?) who's feel ostracized; it seems that he's gone out on a limb to impress somebody (a girl?) -- as he puts it, "All the freaked-out measures / I took, tryin' to make you sick of smilin'". But in the third and fourth verses, he hits his stride, with his central image of a Tootsie Roll Pop: "There's something sweet waiting in the center / Taste and see. . . . How many licks does it take to get / To the center where there's something sweet." Underneath all the poses, he promises her, is something geniune and wonderful; he's urging her to work a little to find his real self.

Okay, so that's all there is to it. Two arresting images -- the Magic Marker bleed-through and the Tootsie Pop -- and that dumbstruck remark "Look what's ordinary now," which gets repeated over and over, in Yim's hushed and husky vocal. Every verse more sounds get layered in -- another guitar, a dobro, a bass, synths, backing vocals, finally even drums -- but it remains gentle and light. With a minimum of fuss, Yim spins us through the shallowness of modern relationships, the tackiness of our mass culture, and the importance of being real -- and all without one bit of preaching or poeticizing. That hook seems so gentle, but it ingratiates itself until you wake up singing it. Like I said, syrup on pancakes. It's a winner.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

"These Roads Don't Move" / Jay Farrar and Benjamin Gibbard

What's with all these "side projects"? Back in the day, you were either in a band or you weren't. Remember how Eric Clapton had to break up Cream before he could be in Blind Faith? But now you've got guys like Jack White, who can do White Stripes and the Raconteurs and who knows how many other bands all at the same time. Or those guys in Monsters of Folk, Conor Oberst and M. Ward and Jim James, all of whom belong elsewhere. Jeff Tweedy dances in and out of Wilco, Golden Smog, and Loose Fur, then records with Billy Bragg, the Minus 5, 7 Worlds Collide -- jeez, when the guy wakes up in the morning, does he even know who he's working with today?

So yeah, I was skeptical about this One Fast Move project. It began as the soundtrack for a documentary about Jack Kerouac's novel Big Sur, enlisting Jay Farrar -- the alt-country pioneer of Uncle Tupelo and then Son Volt -- and Benjamin Gibbard of the indie pop band Death Cab for Cutie (not to mention his side project Postal Service). The pairing is hardly obvious. Sure, they both exhibit a depressive streak, but with Gibbard, the depression comes out like your seventh-grade boyfriend's wistful poetry; Farrar's brand of melancholy is hard-bitten and adult, best suited to grubby barrooms and high-plains truck stops. Marry all this to lyrics taken straight from Kerouac's scouring prose -- well, watch out, sister.

But to my surprise, I loved this album. (Read here for my Blogcritics review.) Forget the film, forget even the book: This album is on my permanent playlist for its musical merits alone. Dark as some tracks may be, they're balanced by exhilarating songs like "These Roads Don't Move." Admittedly, I'm a sucker for traveling songs, especially when they're a metaphor for getting a fresh start. But I love the central image of this song -- "These roads don't move, you're the one who moves" -- an almost Zen-like koan about how travel offers a glimmering hope of change.

Throughout the album, I love how Farrar's flexible melodies accommodate the extra syllables of Kerouac's prose, imposed on bedrock rhythms that make up for the lack of rhyme scheme. Different melodies convey different moods, and Gibbard takes the lead vocal on the more tuneful, hopeful songs (which better suits his voice anyway). The passage Farrar chose for "These Roads Don't Move" is a rare island of optimism in the novel: "There is no need to say another word / It will be golden and eternal just like that / Something good will come of all things yet / Simple golden eternity blessing all." If there's irony there, it's dramatic irony; at this moment in the novel, Kerouac does believe in redemption and clean slates and all that sort of stuff. Notice how the melody soars upward at the end of lines, or nestles in a comforting little glissando phrase. And as the chorus repeats that "These roads don't move, you're the one who moves" mantra, it does so with a tuneful hook that swings you right down the road with it.

Verse two is more explicit about his journey: "Now get my ticket and say goodbye / And leave San Francisco behind / Go back home across Autumn America / And it'll all be like it was in the beginning." Verse three casts a shadow -- mentioning "dark torturous memories" and "irrational mortal loneliness" -- but by then we're just sailing along on that steady, wheeling beat, uptempo and bright. Yeah, there's the Western loneliness of a slide pedal steel guitar, but there are also shuffling drums (who knew Ben Gibbard was also a drummer?) and a brisk guitar strum to keep our narrator skipping right along.

I'm guessing this side project will be a one-time deal; Farrar and Gibbard are both too much in demand. If Kerouac hadn't brought them together, who would have imagined this? Yet Gibbard's honey and Farrar's grit add up to a beautiful and haunting album. I highly recommend.

Monday, November 30, 2009

"Over My Head" / Ray Davies

Kinks Month isn't over -- not quite yet. I know that Phobia was the last album by the Kinks, but Ray Davies is still working. And if you don't know Ray's solo output, oh, man, you should.

Back in the summer of 2005, I was cleaning up the kitchen after dinner one night, half-watching the little black-and-white TV on a shelf over the kitchen table. I wasn't even looking at the screen -- scrubbing a saucepan, maybe, or sweeping the floor -- but when the first strains of this song came on, I whirled around. My heart leapt. I knew it was Ray, of course -- who else sings like that? -- but I didn't know the song. Could that mean that the Kinks were still around?

Sadly, no, I soon learned as this documentary, The World Through My Window, continued. This program (or "programme," made for British TV) shows Ray recording his new solo album, Other People's Lives -- amazingly, his first solo studio album since the Kinks had dissolved in 1995. Several Kinks classics were played, naturally -- "Days," "See My Friends," "Waterloo Sunset," "Dead End Street" -- but it was the new songs that dazzled me. The minute the show finished, I ran to my computer and used my then-rudimentary Google skills to find out what Ray Davies was up to. Which led me to the Ray Davies Official Forum, and jimmied open the lock that had kept this fangirl too quiet for too long.

For many reasons, Other People's Lives was a Major Life Album for me. I've never felt so transported at any concert as when I stood pressed against a stage watching Ray and guitarist Mark Johns perform The Getaway (Lonesome Train) -- on numerous occasions, I'm glad to say. But listening to this album again today, I realized that it was "Over My Head" that first grabbed me, that first listen on that fateful TV show.

Listen to Ray's vocals, so ragged and world-weary -- as befits an album that's mostly about staring down mortality and his own human frailty. But oh, Mr. Davies has no intention of going gentle into that good night; he kicks back with crunchy guitars, whomping drums, and a hip-shifting funk-infused rhythm that needs no Viagra.

"Wakin' up, / Feeling rough / Totally stressed," he begins, intimately, in a hungover growl. He proceeds with short, unrhymed lines ("Every day is a day at a time / Step by step" -- dig that sly AA allusion), as if he's just setting his feet on the floor, taking stock. His diagnosis? He's definitely battered, shattered, worse for wear: "Hit a wall, took a fall /To a new depth." (An echo of the album's second track, the soul-scouring "After the Fall.") But like a true survivor, he has tools for patching himself up: "Count to ten, / Focus then / Take a deep breath."

The second part of the verse becomes more legato and finally begins to find rhymes, as he steadies his head. He bleakly assesses the world around him -- a world he's learned to cope with, he admits, by merely smiling and pretending. We've seen this Ray Davies before, the guy who just wants to drift away to his island in the sun.

But as he swings into the chorus -- climbing into a higher register and a major key -- for the first time his escapist technique actually seems to work. "I'm a million miles away from it all / And let it go right over my head / Let 'em chase and the winner take all / And let it go right over my head." Can it be? Ray Davies, achieving Zen calm at last?

Well, not entirely. The chorus dissolves back into minor key, sadly repeating the phrase "Over my head," with a tremulous little glissando. He knows he can't check out so completely; it doesn't solve anything. In the ensuing verses, he's still barraged by the people around him, still distressed by the defection of his lover ("Didn't know you were close to breaking / So you thought it should end / Left it all for a new location / So you could start up again"). In the second chorus, he admits that he's only buying time -- "Right now I want some peace of mind / So let it go right over my head." By the final verse, he's crawling back into bed, pulling the sheets over his head.

At six-minutes-plus, I suppose this song goes on too long -- later verses become a mash-up of the earlier ones, as the sonic tangle grows denser and denser. But I dunno, as I get lost in it, I don't recall ever wishing it would end sooner. You know me, I'm a great fan of the underproduced three-minute pop song -- yet I sink wistfully into this build-up of "Over My Head." It's like wading through a beautiful but gloomy swamp (the New Orleans vibe is pervasive on this album, even though most of it was recorded in London). I keep hearing new things, little curls of guitar, splashes of honky-tonk piano, ghostly extra vocals that could be Ray or could be someone else. . .

What a joy is it to have to grapple with a song like this. What a joy it is to hear a middle-aged musician NOT trying to imitate his younger hit-making self, NOT acting like he's still a randy 19-year-old. Discovering Ray Davies after all these years, I was thrilled to discover that he was writing Music For Grown-Ups -- and that's something we grown-up rock fans need desperately.

Thanks again, Ray. And again, and again, and again...

Saturday, November 28, 2009

"Drift Away" / The Kinks

Phobia would be the Kinks' swan song -- at least, that is, if Ray and Dave Davies don't decide tomorrow to get the band back together, which they could absolutely do. Hey, there's nothing stopping them, folks. AHEM.

But in 1993, they didn't know Phobia would be their last album, and they certainly didn't go out with a whimper. It's one of the band's hardest rocking albums, which normally isn't my cup of tea. I'll make an exception for Phobia.

Case in point: "Drift Away." Sure, it's another take on that iconic Ray Davies theme, escaping the pressures of modern life. As far back as "I'm On an Island" he's been nursing this fantasy, through "Apeman," "Complicated Life," and "Holiday." But this entire album is about the relentless tension of late 20th-century life; it's almost apocalyptic in its vision. Tangoing off to an island in the sun isn't a feasible option any more. The very desperation with which Ray clings to his fantasy proves how sick his world is.

He begins wistfully enough, with few measures of what sounds like an Irish sea chanty: "Drift away, / Just drift away / Sometimes I wish I could just drift away." But then the drums smash through, and the snarl of guitar takes off. And singing in his most savage voice, Ray prophesies fire and brimstone: "They say there's gonna be a river of blood / It's apocalypse now / So we're waiting for the flood." It's not just natural disasters either -- "While the dollar falls down / The yen's gonna climb / It's a moral decline / And I'm losing my mind." It's half sung, half shouted, with not a trace of that winsome opening melody. It's like the cry of a drowning man, fighting his way to the surface for one desperate gasp of air.

The metal guitars, the sledgehammer drums, the fierce wall of sound -- they don't go away for the chorus, even though it shifts from minor to major key: "I think I'll just drift away / To that island of my dreams / Live in total fantasy / Close my eyes and drift away." It's hardly a sustaining illusion, though; whereas in earlier songs his escapism promised some relief, here it's just not working.

In verse two, 'back in the real world," Ray finds another villain -- "The man on the news is going over the top / Now he'll say anything so his show don't flop." Ray's had his fill of brushes with the media, and he cuts them no slack: "They shout the story to the nation / Pass on the panic to the population." It resolves in a miserable wail of "It's all over now." And when the chorus rolls around again, Ray admits that his drifting away is only a vain wish. Melody devolves into a series of aggressively shouted "drift aways," on the brink of panic.

"Now all the politicians are running out of hope," Ray declares in the last verse; "They've burned all their bridges / Now they just can't cope." He flings fragmented images at us -- suicides dangling from ropes, newsmen exhorting the populace, rivers of blood flowing. It's like a Hieronymous Bosch painting, surreal and terrifying.

And this is only track three of the album -- Ray and Dave have a lot more apocalyptic vision to load on us as the album continues. You gotta hand it to them -- they never did slide into middle-aged complacency, did they? God Save the Kinks.


Thursday, November 26, 2009

"UK Jive" / The Kinks

It was all my fault, I'm sure. By 1989 I wasn't listening to the Kinks anymore; why should anyone else? And with their new record company, MCA, breathing down their necks, the Kinks -- amidst epic battles between the brothers Davies -- cranked out UK Jive on a minimum of inspiration. Not only did they rip off riffs from other artists (hear them go all Talking Heads in the middle of "Aggravation"), they recycled their own songs mercilessly. It probably deserved to be the flop it was.

But coming to it years later, I discover that this record isn't nearly as awful as it was rumored to be. In fact, there are more than a couple tracks I like quite a lot. Fr'instance. Take a little bit of "Come Dancing" nostalgia, blend it with the boppy danceability of "Jukebox Music," and you've got "UK Jive," the album's title track title. It should be a cynical bit of throwaway fluff, and maybe it is. But I don't know, I can't help liking it -- and feeling guilty that I wasn't around to stand up for the Kinks when it first came out.

That jitterbug beat, the jiving guitar licks, put us in a Fifties mood from the very start, and Ray's lyrics recreate a vintage scene from his old North London haunts: "Another Saturday night and everybody gets together / The pubs are turning out and all the streets are alive / But the people wanna party so they come back to our house / Everybody gonna do the U.K Jive." By all accounts Ray and Dave's father, Fred Davies, was quite a party animal, and this description is no exaggeration -- after last call, the regulars did reel across the road from the Clissold Arms to the Davies house on Denmark Terrace to keep the party going. "Dad's got a crate of beer and it's an open invitation / He's ever-so elated and so are his mates."

I can just imagine skinny little Ray Davies and his baby brother, jostled up against the wall in the front room, getting a taste of adult fun. It worked in "Come Dancing," that child's-eye view of adult thrills, and Ray Davies never throws away a useful concept. But I don't know, I fall for it all over again. I love the feeling of being in that front room with him, no matter how crowded and cacophonous it might be.

In verse two, we get another nugget of Davies family history: "Mum's all annoyed dad forgot the inflation / He blew all his wages by half past nine." (Remember in "Come Dancing," the boyfriend who "blew his wages for the week / All for a cuddle and a peck on the cheek"?) With Micawber-like improvidence, Mr. Davies has "bought a gramophone on the never never [Britspeak for 'installment plan'] / And the tally man's gotta have his money on time." Ah, considering how Americanized the Kinks had begun to seem by 1989, these Britticisms are welcome indeed.

There was a whole sub-genre of "dance songs" in the late 50s, early 60s, that contained dance instructions right in the song; Ray's calling them out here, his arch vocals trading off with swinging horn licks: "Swing your partner to the left, / Swing her back to the right. / Don't stand in the middle / And act cool all night." (Later on in the song he adds, "You've got to learn to swing both ways," with an extra suggestive wiggle in his voice -- a sly "Lola" reference.) Next he launches into a sort of fight song, perfect for a raucous post-pub singalong: "Do that U.K. Jive/ Do that U.K. Jive / U.K. O.K. U.K. O.K. gimme that U.K. Jive." Well, you'd have to be made of stone not to join in on that chorus.

Like most rock songs of this era, it goes on a bit too long, but as it peters out with extra solos, Ray does a sly dirty old man routine: "Blow in my ear, / I like the way you do that." I'm reminded of Ray Charles, and all those chuckling asides that made "What'd I Say" so much fun. ("Are you jiving me? / Oh, you bad pussy cat / You'll make papa mad.")

Is is worthy of the Kinks? Not really. On the other hand, if Aerosmith or Queen or Bruce Springsteen had turned out something this catchy, they'd have been media darlings for it. It just wasn't, apparently, what music fans wanted to hear from the Kinks in 1989. More's the pity.

AND ON WE GO: Phobia and "Drift Away"

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"Lost and Found" / The Kinks

Sure, I knew there was a hurricane on its way on September 27, 1985. The weather forecasts had been calling Hurricane Gloria the "storm of the century" all week; office workers in glass skyscrapers were frantically taping their windows, and plenty of folks I knew just didn't go to work. But I did, even though I worked on the 27th floor. I sat in that Midtown skyscraper that morning, feeling the girders around me sigh as the building swayed in the howling wind. My boss, Chuck, panicked and told us all to go home, before they turned the elevators off. I got to ground level and fought my way to the subway station, shouldering into fierce gusts of wind, splattered by lashing squalls of rain.

And by the time I emerged from the 1 train at 79th Street, the sky was blue and calm. A free day off from work!! Sweeeeeeeett! My husband and I hurried to the local video store to get a movie to watch on our unexpected vacation day -- only to discover that everybody else on the Upper West Side had had the same idea. The streets may have been sunny, but the video store shelves were swept bare.

I had no idea at the time that Ray Davies was living through the same storm that day, a mere seven blocks south of me. And because I had fallen off the Kinks bandwagon -- driven away by the arena-rock years -- I didn't hear the Kinks' 1986 album Think Visual, where Ray Davies sings, in the opening lines of "Lost and Found": "Waiting for the hurricane / To hit New York City. . . . " But eventually I found my way back into the Kinks fold, and when I finally discovered this album -- and this song -- I felt a shiver of recognition.

"Lost and Found" makes a frequent appearance on my floating list of Top Ten Kinks Songs (how hard it is to choose just ten); I think of it as the companion song to "Stormy Sky," not just because of the storm but because of its sexy syncopation, the tenderness of Ray's vocals, and the central image of lovers finding shelter in each others' arms. It ain't often you find a Ray Davies song about two people simply happy to be together; grab 'em wherever you can.

Of course the storm is a metaphor -- of course! -- for all the crises life is bound to bring; having a relationship that can help you through that is worth more than gold. But Ray works the metaphor beautifully here -- "Somebody said it's hit the bay . . . We're near the eye of the storm . . . They're putting up the barricades . . . " It's the anticipation that gets you, battening the hatches and all that, as he sees from afar "the hurricane crossing the coast line."

But it wouldn't be a Ray Davies song if he didn't also throw in some quirky details, like "And all the bag ladies / Better put their acts together" and "the old sea dog says shiver me timbers / The sky's gone black / And it's like the dead of winter." Why do I love those lines? I don't know. Maybe it's the whimsical way Ray sings them -- as if this love makes him so secure, he can even see absurdity in the face of disaster.

My favorite bit is the bridge: "This thing is bigger than the both of us / It's gonna put us in our place." It's a brilliant, dual-edged line -- on one hand, the storm is bigger than they are, but it's also their love that is bigger, like the old movie cliche (think Humphrey Bogart -- "This thing is bigger than the two of us, baby.") They're overwhelmed by love, amazed that they can give up being separate and start being a couple.

In "Stormy Sky" the "lost" part of the equation was still stronger; now it's the "found" that matters. He still seems astounded by it happening -- "in the nick of time," he marvels. "We were lost and found, just in time / Now we've got no time to waste." Or, as he realizes in a later version of the chorus: " We came through the storm / Now it all seems clear / We were lost and found, standing here / Looking at the new frontier." It's not just a clear sky he's seeing there; it's the possibility of where his life could go, now that he's got her.

This isn't the way a teenager sees life; this is how you see it when you're middle-aged and have been through your share of painful affairs. When you've given up hope that it's ever gonna happen for you, that you won't get your Hollywood ending. And then joy surprises you, just like that -- "in the nick of time." Bravo, Ray.

"Do It Again" / The Kinks

I was busy in 1984 -- switching jobs, getting married, writing my first book. I didn't have time to be a Kinks fan. So -- with the exception of their radio hit "Good Day" -- Word of Mouth was lost on me. But sometimes you have to wait to hear an album at the right time in your life. Back then, my favorite songs might have been "Good Day," or "Going Solo," or the majestic "Living On A Thin Line." Now, though, I'm all about the bitter wisdom of "Do It Again."


"Standing in the middle of nowhere, / Wondering how to begin," Ray starts out, singing plaintively over a Morse code of repeated guitar notes. That lost-and-confused act is a Ray Davies trademark. And here he's not just lost in space, he's come unstuck in time, "Lost between tomorrow and yesterday, / Between now and then." The song's post-punk arrangement add surreal sci-fi effects, with little scraps of his own voice reverbing in the distance, like some kind of faulty neural playback.

With a clang of guitar and bash of drums, he jumps into the chorus: "And now we're back where we started, / Here we go round again. / Day after day I get up and I say / I better do it again." (I love those yelping attacks on "back" and "round," and how he reduces the phrase "do it again" into a hurried scribble of words.) The jittery agitation of this chorus tells you exactly how Ray feels about his inexorable routine. Like a mash-up of "Here Comes Yet Another Day" (from Everybody's In Show-Biz) and "Nine To Five" (from Soap Opera), Ray contemplates the daily grind with horror. Whether you're a rock musician or a white-collar commuter, it's a soul-killer.

The next verse (I guess you'd call it a verse, though the melody has changed) continues on this theme: "Where are all the people going? / Round and round till we reach the end. / One day leading to another, / Get up, go out, do it again." The "Do It Again" video -- one of the Kinks' best -- carries on in this vein, set on a rush-hour Tube train before shifting to a seaside fun fair.

That circular melody, morphing from verse to verse, those disconcerting echoes, the Pulsar guitar, perfectly evoke the misery of a mind-numbing daily slog. But then Ray takes the song deeper, widening its scope. After all, by 1984 the Kinks had been recording and performing non-stop for 20 years; Ray Davies had a right to wonder what the point was. The third verse expresses his growing sense of futility: "And you think today is going to be better, / Change the world and do it again. / Give it all up and start all over, / You say you will but you don't know when."

So who is this "you"? Maybe it's the universal You, maybe it's a romantic partner, maybe he's musing about himself. Still, I like to think of this song as a coded conversation with brother Dave, who had been threatening to quit the band (and had finally driven out original Kinks drummer Mick Avory, though -- courtesy of Ray -- Mick pops back up in the video). In the next section Ray commiserates with Dave's need to bust out of their 20-year rut; "The days go by and you wish you were a different guy, / Different friends and a new set of clothes." But betraying his old mates is one thing; betraying who he is is something else.

"You make alterations and affect a new pose," Ray goes on; "A new house, a new car, a new job, a new nose." I dig that scornful onslaught of "new's," slung one after the other; the "nose" at the end isn't just there for the rhyme -- remember how Ray refused to get his teeth fixed back in 1964? (though he's not above coloring his hair nowadays....) "But it's superficial and it's only skin deep," he warns, "Because the voices in your head keep shouting in your sleep. / Get back, get back." That echo of the Beatles' "Get Back" isn't accidental, I bet, considering the other Beatle echoes in this song -- that "Hard Day's Night" clang of guitar at the beginning, the "Day Tripper" riff that follows this verse.

Well, maybe I would have "gotten" this song in 1984 -- the theme would have been familiar to me from the Talking Heads' 1980 "Once In A Lifetime" ("Same as it ever was / Same as it ever was / Same as it ever was . . ."). But now, I feel it deep in my bones. How typically Kinksian this is -- an uptempo, energetic, hook-laden song about feeling hopelessly trapped in life. ("Gotta stand and face it / Life is sooooo complicated.") 'Cos if we're going to get through these crappy lives of ours, we might as well do it dancing.

UP NEXT: Think Visual and "Lost and Found"

Monday, November 23, 2009

"Don't Forget To Dance" /
The Kinks

Well, we all know "Come Dancing," the Kinks' great comeback hit of 1983 from their album State of Confusion. It's a pretty brilliant album, my favorite from this decade, and I've already written about its title track State of Confusion as well as the devasting end-of-the-marriage song Property. But thanks to a great video, "Come Dancing" was the track that nailed the Kinks' 1980s remergence as a band to be reckoned with. It's such an iconic Ray Davies track that he has even based a new stage musical on it, which will be touring the UK next year. (Buy tickets now!)

But there's a companion song to "Come Dancing" on this album, and that's the one I've got haunting my brain. "Come Dancing" looks back fondly to the past, when a lively teenage girl -- Ray's sister -- went out dancing every night at the local palais. "Don't Forget to Dance" is that song's inverse: set in the present, not the past, and describing not a girl but an older woman, who still has that dancing spirit alive in her. Today I suppose we'd call her a cougar, and find her faintly ridiculous. But not Ray Davies, champion of loners and misfits. He finds her poetic and brave, as she clings to her fading beauty and dreams of romance.

Whereas the sound in "Come Dancing" is a retro carnival-esque whirl, "Don't Forget to Dance" is definitely a slow dance, a gentle shuffle with just a whisper of 80s-era synths. (Personally I love that climbing electric piano line.) It invites wistfulness, with a relatively simple arrangement, spangly guitar riffs, a layer of organ, and steady drumming -- the back-up oohs don't even come in until after the bridge.

Though he's written it in the second person, Ray sees every detail of this song through the eyes of his heroine, beginning with that trademark window view, as if this is her own Waterloo Sunset: "You look out of your window / Into the night. / Could be rain, could be snow, / But it can't feel as cold as you're feeling inside." Her loneliness, her lostness, is clear right away; the melody drifts uncertainly around a handful of notes, with Ray stuffing in extra words, almost turning the rhymes into blank verse.

And then he fills in her social details: "And all of you friends are either married, vanished, / Or just left alone." We never know, actually, whether she's a spinster, a divorcee, or even a wife trapped in a loveless marriage; I suppose she could even be a prostitute. All we know is her weary despair: "That's no reason to just stop living. / That's no excuse to just give in to a sad and lonely heart."

In verse two he enters the picture himself, as an admiring onlooker -- "And if this were a party / I'd really make sure the next one would be mine." Singing in his softest and most sincere voice, he gives her his seal of approval. And then, in the last verse, he zooms out to give us this cinematic scene: "You walk down the street / And all the young punks whistle at you." (It floors me that Ray Davies has actually thought about what a woman feels when she gets cat-calls.) "A nice bit of old," he calls her, or rather says the young punks call her -- a slang term that could be offensive, but not the way Ray sings it.

No, he admires her spunk, the way she eyes those leering boys "Even though you know that you could be their mother." That's such a risky line; it walks a tightrope between sneering at her and pitying her. Sure, she's older, but she knows she's older, and she's willing to defy convention, to be true to herself -- "You do the thing you love the most. / What separates you from the rest." That strained falsetto on "love the most" echoes the piano riff, and Ray's voice trembles ever so slightly with admiration. Ray Davies can be merciless with someone he thinks looks like a fool; he doesn't think that about her. She's a rebel and a misfit, and there's nothing he likes better than that.

At the end of the last verse, Ray delivers the ultimate compliment, a gallant bow in her direction: "And when they ask me how you dance, / I say that you dance real close." He may not be dancing with her, but he has already imagined the fearlessness of her embrace, the generosity of her emotion. And he loves that about her.

Of course, this song is about Ray Davies as well -- some fear of growing older, a faint sense that he might look ridiculous prancing around the stage at his age, like some outrageous poove. It may have been inspired by some woman he saw on the street, but while writing this song Ray somehow was overtaken by his own imagination; he becomes his heroine.

I marvel at this song -- at how Ray Davies makes it wonderful to be middle-aged and attractive and STILL longing for love. I know I'm saving the last dance for him.

AND STILL THERE'S MORE!  Word of Mouth and "Do It Again"

Saturday, November 21, 2009

"Yo-Yo" / The Kinks

The 1981-era Kinks were not my favorite -- the mullet haircuts, the thrashy rock songs -- but this is the thing about the Kinks: Their catalog is so damn deep, there are neglected gems on every album. Personally I've even grown to like the noisy mash-ups like "Destroyer" and "Add It Up" on Give The People What They Want, but my heart lies on Side 2, with songs like "Art Lover," "Better Things," and "Yo-Yo."

It's sneaky, how Ray begins this song as if it's another of his omniscient narrator numbers, a short story about ordinary suburban citizens: "There are many different people, / Livin' double lives. / One for the office, / And one that they take home to their wives." (I love how the melody slips and slithers on the line endings, like "lives" and "wives" -- dodging around just like these divided souls do.) He zooms in on a specific vignette, drawing its details with the accomplished brushstrokes of a master: "He sits in the armchair, watching channel 4, / With his brains not expected home for an hour or more." That's flat-out brilliant songwriting, isn't it? That's the sort of observation that you can cling to, to help make sense out of your own daily life.

But wait! There's more! The camera pans to the next room: "His wife is in the kitchen, fixin' her old man's tea / She's thinking to herself, / 'He's not the man that married me, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.'" Well, if I was sympathizing with that poor workaday drone in the armchair before, I'm really arrested by the other side of the story. Forget him, she's the one I'm living through now. It's almost like "Two Sisters," Ray's song from way back on Something Else -- both sides of the story are painfully clear to the all-seeing, all-knowing storyteller.

Not for long, though. "Yo-Yo" yo-yos itself, dropping the short story and plunging into confessional mode. "You needed me when you were crying,/ But now you're laughing I'm the last thing on your mind." It's not only confession, but accusation, and Ray's singing takes on a new savagery. He completely forgets about seeing both sides of the story: he simply can't. Whoever inspired this song (I'm putting my money on Chrissie Hynde) should have been sorry indeed when she first heard it.

And he's not just complaining ("First you love me, then you don't"), he's making threats ("You got me sussed, but you don't know"). He's all self-pity one moment -- "Girl you had me dangling, like a yo-yo on a string" -- and the next moment longing to make up: "But with you at the controls I could accomplish anything, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah." And in the end, he simply boils over with vengefulness: "You might be popular, but it won't last for long, / So don't give up the day job, in case it all goes wrong."

So often Ray Davies sits back with his legs crossed, like an attentive shrink -- "So how do you feel about that?" In "Yo-Yo," though, we bust right through that scrim of objectivity. Something has touched him close to the nerves this time; the wound is still open. And the edgy rawness of Dave's guitar, the dense tangle of sound that characterizes this whole album, makes perfect sense for this song. It makes me realize that hard rock does have its place. When life gets tough, the tough turn up the volume.

COMING NEXT: State of Confusion and "Don't Forget to Dance"

Friday, November 20, 2009

"Little Bit of Emotion" / The Kinks

We're getting awfully close to the Eighties now -- and you know how I feel about the Eighties. It was the Decade That Almost Killed Rock Music; it would be no surprise if even the Kinks had trouble finding their way.

And yet, although their 1979 album Low Budget tends to be a musical grab bag -- they're the Bee Gees one minute ("(Wish I Could Be Like) Superman"), next the Clash ("Pressure"), Blondie ("Moving Pictures"), even the Tattoo You-era Rollling Stones ("Misery") -- in the end, Ray Davies can't help being Ray Davies. Sure, I'd bet that "Little Bit of Emotion" owes something to Graham Parker and the Rumour, whose "You Can't Be Too Strong" was one of the highlights of Squeezing Out Sparks, released a few months earlier on the same Arista label as the Kinks. In my opinion, Squeezing out Sparks is one of the great New Wave albums; I wouldn't blame Ray for wanting to steal some ideas from it. But the way the Kinks' song came out is pure Ray Davies, and I just love it.

First off, where Graham Parker dug deep into personal heartbreak, "Little Bit Of Emotion" shows Ray in his classic Waterloo Sunset pose, ever the detached observer -- "See all the people / With hatred in their eyes / I can't help thinking that / It's only a disguise." Ray Davies has never been shy about imagining other people's mental states, but in the late 70s, when pop psychologizing was rampant, he really goes to town. "Maybe they're scared / To let the inside out," he muses; "So they put on a heavy front and hope that no one else / Can work them out." Dr. Ray sees through all that, and the chorus is his professional diagnosis: "They're scared to / Show a little bit of emotion / A little bit of real emotion / In case a little bit of emotion / Gives them away."

Next, Ray the Storyteller produces his first vignette, Exhibit A: "Look at that lady dancing around with no clothes." (Yes, look at her guys. I bet Ray spent a lot of time in the strip clubs -- purely for research, of course.) That image of the bored stripper, her face blank above her gyrating body, is just the sort of irony that Ray Davies would home in on. "She'll let you see most / Anything, but there's one thing / That she'll never show." Which is? You got it: "A little bit of real emotion." The way Ray delivers that chorus, it could be his old mincing campy voice, but here I just think he's being delicate, picking his way through the minefields of the heart.

His second vignette is even more Daviesian -- "Look at that looney / With a smile on his face." Ray has always been drawn to misfits and cripples, and I can just imagine him studying some neighborhood wacko, trying to get inside that guy's head. (I remember all too well how many homeless crazies were living on Manhattan's streets in 1979, as new state policies cleared out psychiatric institutions to "return the mentally ill to the community.") "He's got a look in his eyes / That makes it seem that he's from outer space," Ray observes. And then he turns it back on us: "He's uncoordinated so we shut him out / In case he shows a little bit of emotion . . . .We're afraid to see a bit of emotion / So we walk away." So who's the fool here?

The arrangement is fairly simple, an acoustic strum decorated with a few sparkling electric riffs, like glimmers of emotion breaking through the gentle steadiness of the ballad. Yes, there are back-up oohs, the urban wail of a sax, a jazzy guitar solo in the middle break. But on the whole, it's a tender, restrained interlude on one of the Kinks' most uptempo albums. And the bridge contains one of my favorite Kinks quotes of all time: "People learn their lines / And they act out their part / Then they talk on cue / But it's got no heart." That "life's a stage" metaphor has been around at least since the days of Shakespeare, but it obviously has a peculiar resonance for Ray Davies; he comes back to it time and again.

Ray Davies may have fled stiff-upper-lip England for let-it-all-hang-out America, but -- surprise! -- repression is a universal malady, a curse of modern times. And for Ray Davies the detached observer -- sitting in his tower, looking out his window -- it is a sad truth indeed.

ON DECK: Give the People What They Want and "Yo-Yo"

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"Out of the Wardrobe" /
The Kinks

A short post today, and the simplest of videos, because -- guess what!! -- Ray Davies is in town and I'm going to go see him tonight. I've got to go hang with my herd of other Dedicated Followers and prepare ourselves to bask in his Rayness.

Today's album is Misfits -- a lovely little LP, though not one of my Most Important Life Records. Though Misfits fits squarely in the Arista-era bid to become a Major Rock Band, Ray lets himself revert to his old quirky type on several tracks on the album. Those throwbacks to his old storyteller self are for me the redeeming glimmers in this late-70s arena rock bombast; I mine them like gold nuggets.

Naturally, the title track is in many ways my life story, but the song I can't get out of my head is "Out of the Wardrobe," a tuneful little rag about a "chick called Dick" who's a cross-dresser. But don't jump to any conclusions; this isn't "Lola Redux." "Out of the Wardrobe" is more of a domestic drama, the tale of his marriage to Betty Lou, and how they deal with his transvestite leanings.

In a lot of ways Dick and Betty Lou resemble the young couple in Something Else's "Situation Vacant"; Dick's proclivities are more like Johnny's unemployment in that earlier song -- just something the young marrieds have to get past. "You see, he's not a common place closet queen / He shouldn't be hidden, he should be seen," Ray tells us, with a delivery that suggests total sympathy, not ridicule.

Or in another verse, "He's not a faggot as you might suppose / He just feels restricted in conventional clothes." Ray Davies was hip enough to the downtown gay scene to know the difference between a drag queen and a cross-dresser, and he enjoys playing around with the irony here.

And the secret of a happy marriage is that Betty Lou understands this. She understands it so well, she herself puts on trousers and smokes a pipe. The family that plays together stays together.

It's one of Ray's few happy marriage songs, in fact. He just loves these two, and so do we. Listen to how tenderly Ray sings the crowning line: "'Cos when he puts on that dress / He looks like a princess." Add a glister of guitar and we see Dick in all his glory.

NEXT: Low Budget and "A Little Bit of Emotion"

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"Stormy Sky" / The Kinks

So at long last, in 1976, Ray Davies took up residence in New York City -- as much as an touring musician can "reside" anywhere -- and what happens? He writes an album like Sleepwalker, tinged with the jazzy rhythms, sonic density, and midnight ramblings of the City That Never Sleeps. It's full of insomniac songs -- "Sleepwalker," "Sleepless Night," "Full Moon," and my favorite, "Stormy Sky." As an adopted New Yorker and confirmed insomniac, how could I not love this song?

Is this song a ballad or a rocker? The answer is, both -- and I don't mean the sort of "soft rock" pablum that would soon dominate pop music. (Check out my Eighties Cheese Week for that.) No, the tempo of "Stormy Sky" clicks right along, brimming with syncopation, bracing up that fluid melody. And there's Dave Davies' supple guitar line, threading through the song with samba-like grace, but commanding enough to build to a grand ending. Usually I hate grand endings, but here it fits just right.

I suppose it helps that Ray Davies doesn't have a syrupy sweet voice, even when he's singing in his most sincere vocal style (what a relief after all those campy voices in the theatrical albums). I love how he softly sidles into the verse, as if picking up a conversation -- "Oh, oh darlin' / Little darlin' / Did you ever see such a stormy sky?" or in verse two, "I feel it / Do you feel it? / Can you feel it?" The cracks and wobbles of his voice work just right, making you feel like he's an ordinary guy overwhelmed by life.

Of course, Ray is not exactly your go-to guy for happy love songs, and even here there's a hint of relationship trouble. The "stormy sky" he's singing about sounds like social problems in verse one ("Ev'rybody's try'n' to hide, / To get away from that stormy sky") -- with a major recession and a world energy crisis, in 1976 Ray could easily have felt that he was living through stormy times. But in verse two, it seems more like a rough patch in their relationship ("But if you hold me tight, / I know that we'll be all right. / Tomorrow we'll laugh about it"). And of course it could be both -- how easy it is for couples to be stressed to the breaking point in social crises.

The main thing, though, is that chorus: "We're under a stormy sky, / Watchin' the clouds roll by. / But won't you let me keep you warm, / And leave the storm outside? / It's only a stormy sky." WOW. It isn't often you find Ray Davies offering tenderness and comfort; is this is the same guy who told his girlfriend to "Stop Your Sobbin'"? Now he's more like John Hiatt singing "Feel Like Rain." And frankly, it's sexy as hell.

So there's the storm -- literal or figurative -- lashing the windows, and Ray gently holding his sweetie in his arms, keeping her safe, warm, and dry. His voice is a coaxing intimate murmur, just a little raspy, but never pleading (pleading's for wimps). Who doesn't love a good rainstorm? Once you're safe indoors, that is. . . .

NEXT UP: Misfits and "Out of the Wardrobe"

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"No More Looking Back" / The Kinks

Yes, I'll say it -- Schoolboys In Disgrace is not my favorite Kinks album. Hey, the Kinks don't need mindless fans who think everything they do is perfect. I'm so open-minded, I'll admit that Schoolboys is uneven (just don't say a WORD against Muswell Hillbillies!). "Uneven" is the operative word, though. Not every track on the album is brilliant, but on the other hand there are gems like "The First Time We Fall In Love," "Headmaster," and the gleeful "Jack the Idiot Dunce." And I would go to the mat with anybody who doesn't think that "No More Looking Back" isn't one of the Kinks' best songs.

Ray let brother Dave have a little more room for guitar solos on this album, and Dave was more than up to the task. (Remember, it was 1975; instrumental bravado had not yet given way to the stripped-down aesthetic of punk.) So I should mention right away that my favorite thing about this track is the ringing guitar riff that Dave plays throughout. It's almost like the siren call of memory, carrying through the song's theme of love and loss.

Like a lot of Ray Davies' songs, from "See My Friends" to "One More Time," "No More Looking Back" keeps yearning backward and forward in time. It's set in the present -- as the last song in the suite, it has to wrap up the story -- with the narrator feeling the tug of emotion as he recalls his old sweetheart, his first love. The opening is almost cinematic: "Walking along a crowded street, / I see thousands of faces before me." Next we get a quick-cut close-up: "Then I see a face that I used to know / Long ago in my life story." Is it her? No, just some stranger's face that jogs his memory -- something that's not hard to do, for he admits "your image is still inside me. / The past is gone but in my head / You're still walking along beside me."

Come on, 'fess up: We've all had lovers like that, the One Who Got Away, or the Great Romantic Regret. (Who's yours?) But being an introspective kind of guy, Ray becomes haunted by her memory. "But lately I've been going to / All the places that we once knew, / And just when I think that I am free of you / I keep seeing the things that remind me of you."

It's not fun, actually, not a mellow walk down memory lane. Obsession is more like it: "And just when I think you're out of my head / I hear a song that you sang or see a book that you read./ Then you're in every bar, you're in every café, /You're driving every car, I see you every day." I love how those lines remorselessly repeat, like a melodic tic, the notes circling around. He can't escape this, even though he's well aware he won't find her, because "you belong to yesterday." (And oh, what a miserable wail he gives that last syllable.)

Now, a lesser songwriter might have written this as a slow, gentle song. Not Ray. The chorus actually rocks out, with a soft but relentless drumbeat and those stinging guitar riffs, laying down like whiplashes. "No more looking back," Ray berates himself, "No more living in the past." Over and over he tells himself, "Yesterday's gone and that's a fact, / Now there's no more looking back." Yeah? Good luck with that.

He's trying so hard to be a hard-headed realist, but the romantic in him keeps breaking through. "Perhaps someday I'll stop needing you," he sings wistfully in the second verse, "Then maybe one day I'll be free of you." But no, he's circling back to those bars and cafes, hearing Their Song on a jukebox -- he can't stop himself. There's real pain in Ray's voice as he sings this, an urgent edge to his vocals; he punches those repeated "every's" almost belligerently. I love his phrasing, how the syncopation on the chorus lags so far behind the beat, he's almost anticipating the next measure; I love the little trembles and hopeless slides of his voice, and how desperately he rattles through the crammed lyrics of the verse.

Sure, the title of the song claims he is moving on -- but this guy is nowhere near ready to move on. He may never be ready to "move on," in fact; that's how much he loved her -- or should we say, loves her.

No More Looking Back video clip

TOMORROW: Sleepwalker and "Stormy Sky"

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"Nine To Five" / The Kinks

Theater was what the Kinks were all about in the mid-1970s -- or at least what Ray Davies was all about. Preservation was barely pressed before Ray was off writing a new musical, to be broadcast on Granada Television in September 1974, then reworked into a stage show and LP, released in April 1975. Where Preservation sprawled over 3 discs with a story line I couldn't always follow, The Kinks Present A Soap Opera was a pithy 1-disc fable with a clear-cut story about a rock star -- the Starmaker -- who takes over the life of an ordinary accountant. It may seem stagey and silly now, but not in the height of the 1970s, an era in which sequined spandex and lavender tinted hair were viable fashion choices. This production gave the Kinks their glam rock moment, and when I first got this record, it made TOTAL sense to me.

Now, I love the quirkiness of this album -- the novelty numbers like "Ducks on the Wall" and (my personal favorite) Holiday Romance. I love the snippets of melodramatic dialogue and the hokey radio-serial organ. But the song I keep coming back to -- the real heart of this album -- seems to me to be "Nine To Five," the number in which the Starmaker first steps into Norman's work shoes. This plaintive little waltz is only 1:44 long, just two verses and a bridge, but that's all the time Ray Davies needs to crystallize the mind-numbing qualities of a white-collar job. Even though he's never worked a desk job for a day in his life, Ray Davies just nails it. (How does he do it?)

Accompanied at first only by a metronome-like tinkling piano, Starmaker/Norman reels off a checklist of things to do: "Answering phones and dictating letters / Making decisions that affect no one"; "Deciphering data for mechanical minds"; and, my favorite, "He's checking a list that's been checked out before." (Raise your hand if this sounds like your job.) Our hero is "caught in a mass of computerised trivia" and "lost in the paperwork up to his eyes." And as the trivial tasks accumulate, the song drives home the tedium with its tick-tock tempo and repetitive three-note melodic phrases. Clever rhymes? There are hardly any rhymes at all, if you don't count words that simply rhyme with themselves. Our hero is just too stupefied to make rhymes.

Now, the singer of "Nine to Five" is still supposed to be the Starmaker, researching "ordinary" people; Ray goes for a diva-like delivery, with exaggerated pronunciation and drama-queen swells of volume -- "Whooahh-oh-oh, nine to five / Nine to five / Working from nine to five." But in the bridge, he already feels beaten down, and the song ping-pongs hypnotically between two plain vanilla chords: "And time / Goes by / The hours tick away / First seconds, / Then minutes, / Then hours into days." The unending perspective of days melting into weeks has a narcotic effect on him, and on us. One by one, other instruments are layered in -- drums, tinny back-up vocals, trombone, bass, guitar, accordion, trumpet -- but you barely notice it. At the end, mind you, it segues abruptly into the happy-hour singalong "When Work Is Over" (that's why the end of my music clip on the video breaks off so suddenly). That after-work at the bar is essential to Norman's survival.

Listening to Soap Opera now, it's as if Ray Davies predicted the American Idol mentality, 30 years ago. But he gives it surprising moral heft, trotting out all his trademark themes -- the hollowness of celebrity, the dull conformity of suburbia, and sympathy for (or at least curiosity about) the working man. The original idea might have been a stagey gimmick, but somehow Ray Davies turned it into an existential parable about dreams and identity.

In the end, what I love most about this song is how wistful it is. It would have been so easy for Ray Davies to savage the corporate routine, but that's not what he's up to. Ray doesn't sneer at Norman; he seems genuinely sorry for him. Here I am, stuck in my own life between the dreams of a Starmaker and the reality of Norman -- thank you, Ray, for making it okay to be both.

NEXT UP: Schoolboys in Disgrace and "No More Looking Back"

Saturday, November 14, 2009

"Scum of the Earth" / The Kinks

A dramatization of the battle between good and evil? Oh, no, my brothers and sisters. The Kinks' rock opera Preservation Act 2 (1974) presents a battle between evil and evil -- on the one hand, the pious hypocrite Mr. Black, on the other the greedy capitalist Mr. Flash, with all us little people crushed in between. And of the two, I gotta go with Mr. Flash. He may not be any kinder, gentler, or more noble than Mr. Black, but he sure has the best songs on the album.

Ray Davies regards his character Mr. Flash much like John Milton regarded his Satan in Paradise Lost; he knows the guy is evil, but he can't help becoming fascinated by him. Even though in Act 1 Mr. Flash was knocking down slums -- the worst possible villainy, in the Davies mindset -- once Mr. Black has risen with his People's Army, Mr. Flash's slimy charms seem refreshingly human. Ray's fascination with the mid-century London mobsters the Kray Twins (you may know them as the Piranha Brothers in Monty Python) lends a wicked flair to Mr. Flash and his crew of wide boys, hoods, and spivs. In the middle of Act 2, Ray devotes most of side 2 of the first disc, no less than three songs in a row -- "Scum of the Earth," "Second-Hand Car Spiv," and "He's Evil" -- portraying Mr. Flash in all his glory. He was having too much fun to stop, although he didn't really need all three -- "Scum of the Earth" by itself nails the character brilliantly.

Adopting that same Salvation Army style arrangement he used on "Cricket," Flash takes center stage for a mesmerizing soliloquy, acting as his own character witness. Hanging his head, he begins dolorously: "They call me the scum of the earth / They say I'm the scab of the nation," a gloomy tuba underscoring his shame. But -- there's always a "but" -- "But deep inside I'm only human." I love how Ray wails on this line, wringing out the self-pity. "Just an ordinary man," he adds, with a winsome little lift on the end of the line, "with ordinary plans. . . ."

Of course we have already seen Flash's "ordinary plans" in the song "Demolition"; they're completely evil. But Flash knows he has grabbed our sympathy, and he presses his advantage, claiming in the second verse, "But if they could see / Deep inside me / They'd see a heart that once was pure / Before it touched the evils of this world." A-ha!! It's the old nature vs. nurture argument, so beloved of 1960s psychologists. It's not me, it's my slum upbringing. And the way Ray sings this, you can just imagine his eyes rolled heavenward and his eyelashes fluttering along with his stagey warble.

The first time I heard this song I completely cracked up on the bridge -- a spot-on parody of Shylock's speech from The Merchant of Venice: "For if I cut myself I bleed / And if I catch a cold I sneeze. / Have I not eyes to help me see? / Have I not lungs to help me breathe? / Have I not hands, organs, senses / And affections just like you?" Ray's voice gets more and more actorly, laying on a posh Olivier-like accent, then dramatically declares, "Stop the music! / Well ain't I human / Like everybody else?"

Flash has absorbed Mr Black's sermonizing techniques very well by now; in verse three he spins the microscope on his audience, reminding us that "good and evil / Exist in all of us." That parallel with Milton's Satan I mentioned earlier? Ray makes it himself, with a paraphrase of the famous quote from Paradise Lost: "And no man is a saint / And each creates his heaven and his hell." Then the chorus bursts in, won over by Flash's eloquence, repeating his glib arguments. Flash wraps it all up by saying -- hat over his heart, no doubt -- "So don't put me down because I've done well, / For even wide boys, hoods and spivs / Have got the right to live." Really, how can we resist?

NEXT: Soap Opera and "Nine to Five"

Friday, November 13, 2009

"Cricket" / The Kinks

Nowadays when I review records, I have to email PR firms to request MP3 files (or just get temporary access to an audio stream); occasionally they might email me a PDF of the cover. It's not like when I was in college, reviewing record albums for the campus newspaper -- every week I'd automatically receive a fat carton of 33 1/3 vinyl LPs, gatefold covers and all, from the three or four record companies that had me on their lists. It was like Christmas all year long.

I still remember the day in November 1973 when I ripped open the weekly RCA shipment and found the Kinks' Preservation Act 1 inside. How I held the long-awaited new LP in my hands, puzzling over the cover! I knew the Kinks were a five-man band -- so who were all these other men (and women!) in the ragtag crew on the cover? And that ugly billboard they were posed in front of; was that a caricature of Josef Stalin, or of . . . Ray Davies? What was going on? Intrigued, I put the LP on my turntable to have a listen.

Now, plenty of Kinks fans were driven away by the two Preservation albums. Not me, baby. This was the record I'd been waiting for my whole life. Ray Davies had finally gone full-on theatrical, with a full pit orchestra and campy voices (in "There's a Change in the Weather" alone, he sings three different characters). The actual story of Preservation was hard to piece together from these dozen songs -- but man, they were such eccentric, fabulous numbers, I didn't care.

I've already written about three tracks from this album: Sweet Lady Genevieve, Where Are They Now, and Sitting in the Midday Sun. All of these are sung by a bemused narrator, The Tramp; any of them could stand alone as a single, outside of the concept album. But this is how hard-core a Preservation fan I am: My personal favorite song on the album is "Cricket," a song so eccentric that even die-hard Kinks fans often disown it.

"Cricket" isn't sung by the Ray-Davieslike Tramp; it's sung in a fey, campy voice by a smarmy character called the Vicar. Ostensibly it's about cricket, a game so esoterically British, I still can't follow how it's played (except that instead of a seventh-inning stretch, the players break for tea). The song is thickly larded with obscure cricket terminology -- phrases like "LBW" and "googlies and legbreaks and offspins." On first listen, I had no idea what he was talking about; I had to look up those phrases on the lyrics printed on the cover -- not that that made it any clearer. (Oh, if I'd only had Google in those days!)

But the Vicar isn't just singing about a sport -- having been raised a Methodist, I know a metaphor-packed sermon when I hear one. The Vicar admits it right up front in verse one: "Some people say that life's a game, / Well if this is so, I'd like to know / The rules on which the game of life is based. / I know of no game more fitting than the age-old game of cricket / It has honour, it has character, and it's British." The smug complacency of that last line is Ray's big wink to the audience -- we realize we can't take the Vicar, or his metaphors, seriously.

In verse two, the Vicar pulls out his central metaphor: "Now the Devil has a player and he's called the Demon Bowler, / He's shrewd, he's rude, he's wicked." (Love that internal rhyme!). Years later I would learn that Ray didn't make this guy up; since Victorian times the Demon Bowler has been a term to describe any wickedly fast bowler (or pitcher, to us Yanks). You'll find it in old Punch cartoons, or P.G. Wodehouse stories; it's a phrase so ingrained in upper-class British culture that it had almost lost its satanic overtones -- but Ray Davies put them back with a vengeance.

Ray's vocal quivers with cartoonish self-righteousness as he sings my favorite line in the song: "He'll baffle you with googlies / With leg breaks and offspin / But keep a level head and don't let that demon in." And the Vicar's advice for foiling the dread Demon Bowler? It's straight out of the stiff-upper-lip manual: "So keep a straight bat at all times, let the Bible be your guide / And you'll get by, yes you'll get by. " He gets even more histrionic in verse three; I can just imagine Ray waggling his finger in the air as he exhorts his congregation: "The Devil takes the weak in spirit, so we must always be courageous! / And remember that God is on your side."

We're way beyond music hall here; this is full-blown pantomime, mustache-twirling villains and all. "Cricket" is no prim Anglican hymn: it's all revival-meeting dramatics, and that horn section is absolutely crucial, adding its Salvation-Army style oom-pah (that bloopy, farting tuba!). The lumbering tempo, the fastidiously mincing melody -- you can't take it seriously. You aren't supposed to take it seriously.

And yet, it's not just a novelty song. Ray Davies never writes "just" novelty songs. The Vicar's hypocrisy and simplistic moral vision are part of what's rotten at the core of society, leaving the people of Preservation vulnerable to schemers like Mr. Black and Mr. Flash. On Preservation Act 1, the vision is still soft-focus and pastoral, but Ray was already laying the foundation for the evil to come in Act 2.I wouldn't receive Act 2 for another six months, though. In the meantime, I played Preservation Act 1 over and over, memorizing every vocal quirk, every odd phrase, every ironic instrumental flourish. It was like going down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland -- who knew what I would find at the other end?

COMING SOON: Preservation Act 2 and "Scum of the Earth"

Thursday, November 12, 2009

"Sitting In My Hotel" / The Kinks

I'm shocked -- shocked -- that I haven't yet blogged about this song. So far in this Kinks album-a-day project, every time I hit a new album I discover that I'd already written about my favorite song on the LP. And considering that 1972's Everybody's in Show-Biz was such a major record in my life (check out the story here), I was sure I'd already discussed my favorite tracks. And yet, no -- not "Here Comes yet Another Day," the world's best wake-up tune; not "Maximum Consumption," my favorite food song ever; not "Motorway," my favorite highway song ever. Not "Look a Little on the Sunnyside," which ranks right up there with the music-biz satires on Lola v Powerman. I can understand why I might have avoided tackling "Celluloid Heroes," Ray's plaintive-yet-campy peek behind the tinsel curtain of celebrity. But "Sitting in My Hotel" -- well, I have pondered this song so deeply for so long, this is a post that practically writes itself.

On one level, "Sitting In My Hotel" is simply a navel-gazing, oh-poor-celebrity-me song, and there are way too many of those around. When Everybody's in Show-Biz first came out in 1972, plenty of critics bashed Ray Davies for writing an entire album of whining about how hard it was to be a rock star. Even brother Dave got into the act, writing "You Don't Know My Name" to pout about how Ray got all the attention. (I think of this as his Jan Brady song.) Enough already!

Of course the critics are right. The world is big and wild and half insane, and the troubles of five long-haired Englishmen on a tour bus don't really amount to a hill of beans. Still, I find that the stresses Ray writes about on this album -- the traffic, the bad food, the constant pressure to perform -- crop up in my daily life too; Ray's zany desperation in these songs helps me to put my game face on every morning. And so when Ray shifts into poignant mode for "Sitting In My Hotel," I'm ready to listen. Hey, I'm a travel writer; I've stayed in my share of lonely sterile hotel rooms. I know exactly what he's talking about.

Besides, I love to indulge Ray Davies in his self-pity moments. I know perfectly well that he's not really as fragile and frail as he portrays himself -- but I like to believe he could be. (With the love of the right woman, et cetera, et cetera.) And there are delicious moments of self-mockery in this song -- like when he describes himself as "dressed in satin strides and two-tone daisy roots" ("daisy roots" being rhyming slang for "boots"), or, best of all, in verse two: "If my friends could see me now, dressing up in my bow-tie, / Prancing round the room like some outrageous poove." (Okay, I'm a sucker for the way he pronounces "prahn-cing".) That limo he's riding in? It's a "chauffeur driven jam jar." He knows this is all ridiculous.

But the brilliant thing about this song is that it's not just a whinge about celebrity life. In a genius move, Ray filters the whole thing through the eyes of his friends -- and if they could see him, they would just laugh. "They would all be saying that it's not really me, / They would all be asking who I'm trying to be." That's how he keeps himself from taking it all too seriously. And with that perspective to keep him grounded, he can then admit that his isolation is a cop-out, a way of "hiding from the dramas of this great big world" and "trying to hide the gloom." Stardom doesn't solve anything.

In fact, toward the end he gives us a snapshot of himself that's almost like an Edward Hopper painting: "They would see me in my hotel, / Watching late shows till the morning, / Writing songs for old time vaudeville revues." Ah, Ray the insomniac, the harshest critic of his own paltry tunes. And when he imagines that "All my friends would ask me what it's all leading to," he's really asking himself. He's questioning celebrity culture, not just moaning about his own personal loss of privacy.

Flickering in and out from major to minor keys, this melody dances between gloom and humor; it's really an amazing high-wire act. The simple piano accompaniment of the first verse captures that air of late-night loneliness, but on the chorus it swells with drums and organ and horns (I love that wistful little fanfare in the chorus), like the self-pity surging in his heart. But then the thought of his friends' laughter keeps him honest, and the arrangement strips back down for the second verse, to train the spotlight on him prancing around the room in his bow-tie. It scales back at the end as well, to finish on a wry, crooked smile.

Late-night crises of the soul get me every time. I'm so swept up in it, I forget to wonder Who are these down-to-earth old friends of Ray's? Because I have to say, he doesn't strike me as a guy who still hangs with his old mates from the neighborhood. And come on, Ray, no one made you put on that bow tie -- in 1972, he was just on the threshold of his most theatrical period, not casting it all off. So yeah, "Sitting In My Hotel" is a pose. But here's the catch: Ray believes it. At least while he's singing it, he does. And listening to this song is like getting a lesson in how to wrestle with one's own demons, whatever they are.

TOMORROW: Preservation Act 1 and "Cricket"

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"Have A Cuppa Tea" / The Kinks

Of all the great songs on Muswell Hillbillies -- my personal favorite of all the Kinks' albums -- why pick "Have A Cuppa Tea"? Well, for one thing, I've already written about Complicated Life and Oklahoma USA, and tackled all the big "themes" of this very funny, and deeply serious, album. But also, I can't help loving this song. I've loved it since the day I first brought home this album in 1973. (I know, I know, it was released in 1971, but I was a bit late to the party.)

It may be gussied up with bluegrass and gospel and country-music twang, but Muswell Hillbillies is still really about North London. On Village Green Preservation Society, Ray mourned the passing of quaintly English things like church steeples and china cups and steam trains; on Muswell Hillbillies, he eulogizes something even dearer to his heart, the working-class urban districts that English Heritage preservationists paid no attention to. This was Ray Davies' village green; this is where he belongs. He can't stop the people in grey from knocking it down, but he can preserve its essence in song before it's wiped away forever. And for a kid like me -- raised in Indiana, but madly in love with London, right down the last sooty brick and grimy chimneypot -- Ray Davies' song were like a magic portal into what I saw as the "real" London.

"Have A Cuppa Tea" begins like a 1930s cakewalk, just acoustic guitar and piano, but if you're expecting some twee tea party -- the sort Paul McCartney might serve up -- think again. Starting in his lowest voice, Ray bounces up the scale like he's bounding up stairs, as Granny bursts onto the scene : "Granny's always ravin' and rantin', / And she's always puffin' and pantin', / And she's always screaming and shouting, / And she's always brewing up tea." Hardly your typical genteel little old lady, eh? I can just see this woman racketing around her narrow two-up-two-down row house, pinafore flapping, hair under a kerchief, sleeves rolled up above her red rough hands. (No dishwashers for her.) And then her husband bellies up to the table: "Grandpappy's never late for his dinner, / Cos he loves his leg of beef" -- reminds me of the bloke in "Autumn Alamanc," and how he loves his "roast beef on Sunday, all right!" But just so we don't idealize Grandpappy either, Ray tells us, "He washes it down with a brandy, / And a fresh made pot of tea."

On this album, the newest Kink -- keyboard player John Gosling -- really comes into his own, perfecting track after track with brilliant musical colorations. Listen to his baroque trills in the dainty minuet of the chorus -- ironic, of course -- as Granny invites us in: "Have a cuppa tee-ee-ee-ee-ea, have a cuppa tea." But there'll be no little fingers crooked here; the second half of the chorus is a thigh-slappin' gospel hoedown: "Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, Rosie Lea!" That Cockney touch at the end -- "Rosie Lea" being rhyming slang for "tea" -- perfectly seals the deal.

In verse two, Ray recites all the ills Granny claims a cuppa will cure, getting more and more ludicrous -- "It's a cure for hepatitis, it's a cure for chronic insomnia, / It's a cure for tonsillitis and for water on the knee." Another hearty round of the chorus, and then -- this never fails to crack me up -- for the bridge Ray spins into a parody of the old McGuire Sisters/Johnny Cash hit "Sugartime": "Tea in the morning, tea in the evening, tea at supper time, / You get tea when it's raining, tea when it's snowing, / Tea when the weather's fine." I can just imagine that song playing on the radio in the front room when Ray was a kid.

Remember how in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the family was always urging people to "put a little Windex on it"? Tea is the same deal for Ray's Granny, and you've got to love her for it. "You get tea as a mid-day stimulant / You get tea with your afternoon tea" -- sure, Ray sees how crazy this is. But he loves her for it, and we do too.

With a lot of writers, the last verse often slacks off, just trying to fill out the scheme. Not so with Ray. In fact, I think it's the third verse that turns this song from a novelty piece into a real statement: "Whatever the situation, whatever the race or creed, / Tea knows no segregation, no class nor pedigree / It knows no motivations, no sect or organisation, / It knows no one religion, nor political belief." For the Granny Davieses of this world, tea is a way to show love, and she let no one escape her crushing embrace. This is what happens when you grow up in a big family crowded into a tiny house, on a street full of other tiny houses; everybody is in and out of each other's lives, not isolated in carpeted bedrooms and set off by velvety lawns. That's what you lose when you knock down rowhouses and put up big modern anonymous towers.

Working on Muswell Hillbillies, as Ray Davies looked back on his North London childhood, I sense he fully realized at last how much he loved his family. (Yes, and brother Dave too.) As for the people in grey -- well, he's not done with them yet. To be continued...

NEXT STOP: Everybody's In Showbiz and "Sitting in My Hotel"

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

"The Way Love Used To Be" / The Kinks

Well, I had to buy Percy to be a Kinks kompletist -- but I can't say I listen to it much. As a film soundtrack (and by all accounts the film is truly dreadful), it caters to the story rather than telling its own tale. All the Kinks play on it, but it doesn't much sound like a Kinks album.


"The Way Love Used to Be" may not sound like a Kinks song, but it's still simply gorgeous. It isn't just the orchestral arrangement that's unusual (the Kinks never got hooked on string quartets like some bands did); its tender quality is something Ray Davies rarely employed on Kinks records. It's the sort of stuff he could handily turn out for TV themes, however, as he did for several BBC productions, like "Until Death Us Do Part" (the British series that America's All In the Family was copied from). A handful of these and other stray tracks are cobbled together on the rogue album The Great Lost Kinks Album, issued in the US by Reprise Records after the Kinks had moved to RCA. (Every time the Kinks changed labels, the old label would crank out a couple of tacky compilations to recoup their lost investment.) And what do you know, "The Way Love Used to Be" also appears on TGLKA, where it fits in just fine.

Listen carefully and you'll discover that "The Way Love Used To Be" has all the hallmarks of a Ray Davies song -- the secret handshake, if you will. There's the yearning to escape ("I know a place not far from here / It's not far away, love, but if you come / I know a place where we'll be alone"), the nostalgia for times past ("And we'll talk of life, the way love used to be"), the horror of modern civilization ("And we'll find a way through the city streets / We'll find a way through the mad rushing crowd"). Although Ray sings it with a tremulous flutter, for once it doesn't sound campy to me -- no, it's wistful and yearning, not hiding behind a scrim of irony.

Yes, the arrangement is old-fashioned, like something from the 1940s or early 1950s, with a pillow of strings and delicate classical accents. It's movie music, pure and simple -- something that wouldn't be out of place in a film like Brief Encounter or Mrs. Miniver. But I get the idea that Ray loves old movies, that he's totally into recreating this romantic, gently melancholy sound.

So what was a song like this doing in a movie about the comic adventures of a man with a penis transplant? I swear, it would almost be worth watching Percy to find out.


UP NEXT: Muswell Hillbillies and "Have a Cuppa Tea"