Friday, December 30, 2016

In Honour of Sir Ray Davies

A Kinks Shuffle

In honour of Sir Raymond Douglas Davies, frontman and principal songwriter for the seminal UK band The Kinks, on the occasion of his knighthood.

1. "What Are We Doing" / The Kinks
From UK Jive (1989)
A seriously underrated album, this. Here's Ray Davies, a star for 25 years or more, still befuddled by modern life. "What am I doing, acting identikit / When all I want to do is be the opposite." You may now be a knight, Ray, but we all know you are at heart a working-class hero.

2. "See My Friends" / The Kinks
From Kinda Kinks (1965)
Here's a window into Ray Davies' process. In this song, he's grieving his sister, feeding into the trend for Indian music, AND giving his brother Dave a chance to show off making a guitar sound perfectly like a sitar. And also sounding dreamily melancholy. And neurotic. Such a sensitive soul....

3. "The Informer" / The Kinks
From Phobia (1993)
The Kinks' last album, as it turned out. And how poignant. He's referencing the 1935 John Ford film (a beauty, if you haven't seen it) based on a 1925 novel by Liam O'Flaherty (also a knockout). But the subtext? I'm betting this is another of the many songs about Ray's tortured, tortuous, and loving relationship with his brother Dave.

4. "Strangers" / The Kinks
From Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround
Yes!  Let's get brother Dave weighing in.

5. "Two Sisters" / The Kinks
From Something Else (1967)
Yes, this is about two sisters. Right. Not about two brothers, one of them in North London with a wife and babies and the other a famous raver.

6. "Lost and Found" / The Kinks
From Think Visual (1986)
Yet another late track that totally hooked me.

7. "Supersonic Rocket Ship" / The Kinks
From Everybody's in Show Business (1972)
The steel band, the horns, the reggae beat -- musically so au courant for 1972, and yet it's just about escaping the daily scrum. Our Ray's perpetual theme -- and a beacon call for us neurasthenics everywhere.

8. "Do It Again" / The Kinks
From Word of Mouth (1984)
Okay, shuffle is delivering a fair amount of late Kinks. But I love the late Kinks. I love how they took on the sounds of the 80s and still delivered Ray's anti-establishment agenda in witty style. And this video sells their take, with the lads performing as subway buskers..

9. "Days" / The Kinks (1968)
Although it eventually appeared on 1972's Kinks Kronicles, this 1968 single is suffused with the dreamy folky flower people sound of that summer. Yet -- a subtle twist, Ray Davies' stock-in-trade -- between the lines it's really a break-up song, with more than a few digs. "You took my life / But then I knew that very soon you'd leave me" -- uh oh. And that wistful bridge, "I wish today could be tomorrow / The night is dark / It just brings sorrow, let it wait" -- hmm, methinks he's not as "moved on" as he says. . . .  

10. "Don't Forget to Dance" / The Kinks
From State of Confusion (1983)
Is it any surprise that one of Ray's most nostalgic albums should have been his gateway back into mass success? The record company powers-that-be tried to talk Ray out of this album about his British provincial roots. He stood his guns -- and it provided a significant boost to Ray's 1980s renaissance.

So yeah, this band is a whole lot more than "You Really Got Me."

The Queen is right to honor this guy.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

"Burning Down the House" /
Talking Heads

In my musical memory, this track was on Fear of Music, that astonishing 1979 album whereon the Talking Heads -- my beloved New Wave New York compadres -- suddenly went from jerky fringe geeks to political provocateurs. (Note: Brian Eno and Robert Fripp were now on board; they even got Gene Wilder, the essential geek artist savant, to play congas on "Life During Wartime.") Most memorable line from that album: "This ain't no party / This ain't no disco / This ain't no foolin' around."

Hunkered down in NYC (I lived on the rough Upper West Side but in my heart I was an East Village squatter), I was so tuned into with that album. As I was with its 1980 successor, Remain in Light (featuring the iconic track "Once in a Lifetime".

But in fact this burn-all-the-bridges song didn't come out until 1983, on the Heads' Speaking in Tongues album. Wikipedia describes this album as their "commercial breakthrough," thanks to the fact that this groovalicious song actually was a Top Ten hit. (Really? I was so divorced from Top 40 radio at the time . . . but really?)

Yeah, okay, I'll buy that. But let's remember where we were in 1983. By then, Ronald Reagan had become the U.S. President, with Margaret Thatcher in charge as the U.K. Prime Minister. So is it any surprise that the counterculture would respond with a track like this?  Or that 4 years after "Life During Wartime," the Talking Heads would feel the need to light up some torches?

From the very first line, we're in danger alert. "WATCH OUT / You might get what you're after." I love the ambivalence of this. Though our singer declares he's an ordinary guy, we already know that we are not in ordinary times. 
Everything's allusive, coded: "We're in for nasty weather," "The transportation is here," "You might need a raincoat," "Fightin' fire with fire." Look over your shoulder, my friend.
The rhythm section is tight (God bless Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth), the lead singer (David Byrne) tightly-wound.  (..."And you have not seen nothin' yet / Everything's stuck together / And I don't know what you expect / Staring into the TV set / Fighting fire with fire.") Which is actually the genius of this track -- the hard-driving inevitability of that beat, versus the neurotic protest of our protagonist. 
It's a brave new world, for sure, and all bets are off.
History repeating itself? 

Thursday, December 08, 2016

And the first song up is . . .

"Makin' Whoopee!" /
Harry Nilsson

Wow. WOW.

In my ongoing adult education class on the wonder that was Harry Nilsson, here's a delicious bit of the syllabus. It comes from an album called A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, which was released in 1973 and died a quiet death on the charts.

A lushly orchestrated album featuring the Great American Songbook?  We didn't even have the term "Great American Songbook" in 1973. (Top 3 songs in the Billboard charts that year?  "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" by Tony Orlando and Dawn; "Big Bad Leroy Brown" by Jim Croce; and "Killing Me Softly" by Roberta Flack.)

But Harry Nilsson, a lonely misfit child, had grown up crooning these songs alongside the supportive adults in his fractured family, and they were dear to his heart. That's how he learned to sing (and oh, my lord, how this guy could sing); my heart goes out to him for choosing to resurrect these beautiful songs.

And this is a vintage one. First popularized in 1928 by Eddie Cantor (yes, the Jewish singer who went blackface in the milestone talkie The Al Jolson Story in 1927), it's a sly little number. If you hadn't already guessed, the "whoopee" of the title refers to sexual intercourse. Yes, oh my children, there was once a time when we couldn't even say "making love" in a pop song, let alone "fucking."  (I'm just old-school enough to regret the loss of tasteful euphemisms like this.)
The genius of this cautionary tale, however, is what happens after the aforementioned whoopee is made. Oh, it all starts off all lovey-dovey with a shower of rice and a love nest, but a year later there's diapers hanging on the radiators and both parties gathering evidence for their lawyers. ("She feels neglected / And he's suspected / Of makin' whoopee.")
And yet how tenderly Harry introduces these complications, lagging a hair behind the beat, lightening his dulcet tenor, caressing the syllables with his supple melisma.
It's such a cynical song, a Jazz Age riposte to the platitudes of love and marriage. In 1973 Harry himself had been through the divorce wringer already, and was heading for his second decree. So yeah, a snarky subtext was firmly in place.
But Harry Nilsson was too honest an artist to throw his ex-wives under the bus. While the brittle satire of the 1920s is respected in this song, I still hear groovy Woodstock-era regret shivering through this gorgeous track. I'm all about nuance, and this track has nuance up the wazoo.
Sometimes the shuffle delivers just the track you need.