critic’s pick: ray davies, “americana”

The notion of Ray Davies – headmaster of the Kinks for over three decades, the Lord Mayor of British pop when it began a global invasion in the 1960s – making an album titled “Americana” initially seems unfathomable. Few artists have so been stylistically loyal to home and heritage. Then again, Davies has long been a journeyman with a fascination for American culture. Check out the brilliant 1971 Kinks album “Muswell Hillbillies” to witness the fascinating continental shift that often surfaces in his songs.

So we now have “Americana,” Davies first solo album in nearly a decade, a record mistakenly viewed in early reviews as a love letter to these shores. It isn’t. The work is an often flattering portrait, especially in its literal view of landscape and customs (Kentucky gets two shout-outs in the first three songs). But it doesn’t skirt over blemishes. “The Deal,” for instance, traces a hustler’s West Coast rise to becoming “a (expletive) millionaire” with a chorus that paraphrases Gershwin (“isn’t it wonderful, marvelous?”) before inverting to reveal the ugly American underneath (“totally fabulous, fraudulent, bogus and unreal”). If that wasn’t enough, the song also channels the Kinks in a descending guitar chord Davies has employed numerous times (most notably on 1965’s “Tired of Waiting for You”) before slipping in an entire verse of 1986’s forgotten “How Are You” as the tune fades.

Davies’ thematic as well as stylistic devotion to his material on “Americana” extends to employing The Jayhawks as a backup ensemble. It’s not group chieftain Gary Louris who figures prominently in the alliance, though, but vocalist/keyboardist Karen Grotberg, who duets with Davies on the travelogue-by-train tune “A Place in Your Heart.” It struts along with a jamboree-style variation of the Kinks’ trademark pop, but leans to the bittersweet.

True to form, there are many instances where the sounds inhabiting “Americana” live up to the album title. “The Mystery Room” slinks along with an infectious mash-up of Cajun, blues and earthy roots-rock. “A Long Drive Home to Texarkana” lingers with the elegiac feel of a classic ballad that the mirror mile markers, literal and figurative, within the song. But the album closing “Wings of Fantasy” is all Kinks-style pop in full royal splendor.

Davies sings with his usual casual, animated authority, but there is now an unmistakable weariness in his voice, especially in two spoken word passages, “The Man Upstairs” and “Silent Movie.” The latter also reveals a sense of jealous mortality as he recounts a conversation with Alex Chilton about how a song is ageless while the artist singing it isn’t. “It cheats time and makes you feel safe,” Chilton told him. “But the reality is things are changing in the world.”

“Americana,” then, offers a view of a changing landscape, both adored and ridiculed, as presented by one of the most learned pop statesmen of any age.



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