Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Kinks' Muswell Hillbillies: An Appreciation.

A few years ago now, a friend gave me a copy of The Kinks' Muswell Hillbillies, telling me it was an incredible album. I then proceeded to put it aside because it fell out of what I perceived of the "klassik" Kinks period of 1964-1970.

Big mistake.

As I have often said before, The Kinks are the rare example of a great band who never produced a truly great front-to-back masterpiece album. The closest contenders are the classic string of 1967's Something Else By The Kinks, 1968's The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, 1969's Arthur, Or The Decline & Fall Of The British Empire, & 1970's Lola Vs. Powerman & The Moneygoround (&, as some like to tell it, 1966's Face To Face, although I honestly don't quite hear it--maybe I needed to hear it at the time). All are in varying degrees ambitious, brilliant, & revelatory, & all deserve seeking out by the serious student of modern rock & roll.

But all fall about 3-4 songs short from being a masterpiece. Something Else has some cloying-to-mediocre tracks at its core, Village Green loses its way in the middle of the second side, Arthur has the drawn-out pointless jam of "Australia," & Lola is a brilliant concept album that's held together by half-brilliant songs, literally--about half of the songs are brilliant, the other half, well, less so.

All are solid triples, but none are home runs. Or whatever the equivalent analogy is in cricket.

Seeing as Muswell Hillbillies fell out of the scope of the "klassik" period & contained no big hits or staples-in-retrospect (except perhaps "20th Century Man"), I wrote it off as a cult (sorry, kult) fetish, celebrated by people who would defend any of The Kinks' series of diminishing returns--I mean concept albums--of the 1970s.

But although it was released by one of rock's biggest cult bands at the transition from when they went from mainstream ("Lola"!) into the marginalized ("Sleepwalker"?), Muswell Hillbillies is a well-rounded achievement that all but sums up the history of rock up to the point of its release.

I dare also say that in doing so, it makes a strong case for being The Kinks' masterpiece.

Rarely have I heard an album that evoked so many other major rock artists so effortlessly & sincerely. Various melodic turns, production touches, & instrumentation evoked a tremendous array of The Kinks' peers: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Band, Randy Newman, Paul Simon, Gram Parsons, Chuck Berry, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, & many more. The closest album I can liken it to in this regard is The Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, which creates an instant history of rock music by using samples of the music literally.

Muswell Hillbillies pulls off the subtler trick of calling these artists to mind organically, in songs that might hint at their sound or style while still creating something wholly new. It's as though The Kinks built their Muswell Hillbilly shack from the dust & chords of their friends' records.

The other thing going for it is its uniquely American identity. The Kinks have been called the most British band of the British Invasion, which their classic period more than bears out. Theirs is a nostalgia for a decidedly British countryside, which speaks in part to how much of this music was lost on America on the first go-around. But Muswell Hillbillies is different. Its trappings & locations might be British, but it beats a solidly American heart. The album is in that rare pantheon of albums about America by outsiders--The Band's self-titled "Brown Album," The Clash's London Calling, & U2's The Joshua Tree, to name 3 others. Each present an America that is in someways even purer than the albums by their American peers because each contained a band on the outside looking in; or, as U2 so elegantly put it, "outside is America."

If there is a theme in Muswell Hillbillies besides America, it is probably, of all things, health. On one hand this might seem random, but on the other, isn't that just a more tangible side of the American obsession with reinvention through self-improvement? Over the course of the album, we find physicians, psychiatrists, & quacks; remedies ranging from holidays to sleeping pills to dieting to tea; people dealing with paranoia, obesity, chest pains, & alcoholism. & those are just the ones that are actually specified--dozens more could be implied or alluded to. (& that also isn't counting the litany of ailments chronicled in "Have A Cuppa Tea").

The album starts with "20th Century Man," a song that is as subtle a declaration of purpose as anything that Ray Davies has ever written--which is to say that it is a subtle as a ton of bricks. "You take all of your smart modern writers," the singer says at one point, "Give me William Shakespeare." "You take all of your smart modern painters," goes the next line, "I'll take Rembrandt, Titian, da Vinci, & Gainsborough." The singer's song is a world that has become a paranoid living hell, overpopulated by nameless mechanical machines & visions of napalm. It is all told as strutting, acoustic-centered rocker, & is perhaps the most Kinks-esque sounding thing on the LP.

Focusing in on the paranoia theme of "20th Century Man" is "Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues," one of the album's finest moments. It sounds like Jimmie Rodgers when he isn't doing his blue yodel--or the exact moment in which minstrelsy turned into country music, somewhere on a distant medicine show stage. The trappings are all vaudeville-era jazz & the mood evokes an early Bessie Smith recording, albeit with fully-rounded out band. It is also one of the funniest songs on the album, taking its placement as a steppingstone between Dylan's "Talkin' John Birch Paranoia Blues" & Radiohead's "Paranoid Android."

The following "Holiday" takes these issues & treats them with a doctor-prescribed trip to the beach. The song plays like a variation on The Lovin' Spoonful's "Daydream" in terms of its melody, but all similarities end there. Instead of a young American singing about a daytime reverie, we have an old British man crooning about his presumably doctor-ordered escape. He sounds silly & more than just a tad bit resistant, breathing through his mouth so that he doesn't have to smell the salt air.

The rocker "Skin & Bone" comes next takes one of rock's great archetypes--Annie, from Hank Ballard & The Midnighters' "Work With Me, Annie"--ages her 20 years, gives her 200 pounds, & then has her lose it dramatically thanks to a fake dietitian. It's a ridiculous song, but one carried by the singer, who seems to be reveling in the asides, which sound like they could be uttered by Paul Simon off of one of his early solo albums. Complete with exercise instructions, it beats Olivia Newton-John's "Physical" (in its video form anyway) by over a decade & is infinitely more listenable to boot. It is also about 35 years ahead of its time--championing a carbohydrate-free diet to lose weight fast. Whoever this fake dietitian is must be a millionaire today.

"Alcohol" picks up on the vaudeville/music hall sound of some of the earlier songs on the album, a tuba-powered 2-step about the perils of the title self-medication. It would be a novelty if the verses weren't so packed with clever description & the refrain wasn't so full of wistful regret. It is also the kind of thing that no one writes anymore, except for Randy Newman. & even he hasn't written a song like this in close to 40 years.

"Complicated Life" closes out the first side with fatherly advice given over ringing slide guitar & grand choruses. Thematically, it plays like the inverse of the rest of the album, taking suggestions provided elsewhere (such as exercise) & eschews them all in favor of simply slowing down & uncomplicating one's life. Warhol once said of his interminable 12-hour films of daylight slowly moving across buildings that being boring was the point--the more bored you are, the emptier you become, & the more beautiful you feel. "Complicated Life" seems to strive for a similar thumb-twiddling goal, albeit one that charmingly plays like a dry-run for an Exile On Main St. outtake.

Side 2 opens with "Here Come The People In Grey," which like "20th Century Man" begins the proceedings with an ode to paranoia. Only unlike the latter, "Grey" comes with a solution--albeit one that comes from the outside world--the people in grey. It is as though Napoleon XIV kept writing successively more realistic follow-ups to "They're Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!" & finally came up with a song that didn't have to be vetted by Dr. Demento. Sung in Davies' hollowly-mocking "Arthur" voice of "Victoria," it speaks to the sense of self-removal that is quietly the core of all madness.

Next comes the most British song on the album, "Have A Cuppa Tea." Or at least, it would be if not for the American-style hoe-down that appears as its bridge. (Who else but The Kinks can write a hoe-down about tea?) The song takes tea & elevates it to the level of medicine show snake oil--a cure-all for any ailment or disease. & like any advertising jingle, the song gets stuck in your head like few others. Perhaps because of its British-ness & natural whimsy, it too feels like one of the most "Kinks-like" songs on the album, fitting somewhere between Something Else By The Kinks & Arthur.

"Holloway Jail" is another one of the finest songs on the album. Beginning with a John Fahey-style finger picking rag, it morphs into an electric-slide blue rocker that grows in scope & production values until it sounds remarkably like a post-psychedelic Beatles song around the period of "The White Album." Capturing that sound is not something that can be taken lightly & it speaks to the simple beauty of the trappings & the honesty of the material. & in the great tradition of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," Lead Belly's "Midnight Special," & The Byrds' "Life In Prison," it discovers that sometimes the truest American heartland (or, come to think of it, madness) can be found in the confines of a cell.

It can also be found in Oklahoma. Not just the state, but the state of mind, scored by Rodgers & Hammerstein & imagined by a girl in England. "Oklahoma, U.S.A." covers all of this ground & more, paying direct due to stars Shirley Jones (the future Mrs. Partridge in her screen debut) & Gordon MacRae (no rock fun facts about him that I'm aware of). Here the grand tradition of the American Broadway gets its due, complete with a name-check of the musical's classic chestnut "Surrey With The Fringe On Top." But more importantly, in presenting a make-believe American home for the British girl who is the subject of the song, it plays as Muswell Hillbillies' soul, a tale of love & escape into a dream of the American wilderness.

"Uncle Son" is perhaps the weakest song on the album, but that's saying something considering it's built around a lilting rhythm that sounds like it could be played by The Band. (That nearly-falling-apart-tripping-over-itself drumming could be Levon Helm, but it's definitely The Kinks' vastly underrated drummer Mick Avory, showing off his chameleon-like chops.) I assumed at first it was a joke on incest, but now I know otherwise; in its talk of preachers & morals, it is the closest thing the album has to a religious song. Because when the doctor fails, you have to get a priest.

The finale title track "Muswell Hillbilly" takes the plays like a faster variation on Robbie Robertson's lead guitar part on the legendary 1966 "Albert Hall" concert on Bob Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb Blues," & then fleshes it out with the best Flying Burrito Brothers song that Gram Parsons never wrote. It further takes Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee" & flips it on its head--instead of showing pride for their homeland, they instead list all of the southern states they've never seen because they're from Muswell Hill, England. In other words, it ends the album with the same dream visions that drove it all along.

Taken altogether, the album shifts in genre & style--country, rock, blues, rhythm & blues, pop, showtunes, ballads, jazz--just as much as it shifts in subject-matter--doctors, holidays, alcohol, jail, country, home. & insanity. All that's missing is a song about trains, but The Kinks already checked that box with "The Last Of The Steam-Powered Trains" from the Village Green album. (Or is that among the modern machines implied by "20th Century Man"?)

A sense of dissatisfaction has driven The Kinks' music since their earliest singles through their "Village Green" classic period, but never before has their music provided a cause or solution. In examining paranoia & the ability to escape into American culture, Muswell Hillbillies is the rare Kinks statement to provide both.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Kinks' Memory Castle.

In 1972, an album appeared with little acclaim or fanfare, let alone notice: A two-record set from Reprise Records titled The Kink Kronikles.

It was a strange release for what had become a rather strange band: Best known for their early overdriven, proto-punk stompers like "You Really Got Me" & "All Day & All Of The Night" in the mid-'60s, by 1966 The Kinks had begun to trade their fuzzy riffs in for a quieter (& weirder) brand of nostalgia.

As led by Ray Davies, who followed a romance for how things used to be (or, perhaps, how they never really were), the group helped him chase his muse through the English countryside: the twisted voice & stark visions of lead guitarist & eager kid brother Dave Davies, the restless hammering of drummer Mick Avory (who played like a cross between Ringo on uppers & Keith Moon on downers), & the tuneful basslines but increasingly resistant personality of Peter Quaife, who quit in 1969 & was replaced by the tuneful basslines but always gung-ho personality of John Dalton.

The result was a series of masterful LPs—Face To Face (1966), Something Else (1967), The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (1968), & Arthur (Or The Decline & Fall Of The British Empire) (1969)—that were largely overlooked, hitless affairs, both in their native UK as well as the US. Each was great in their own right, although none were a flat-out, front-to-back masterpiece like The Beatles' Revolver, Bob Dylan's Blonde On Blonde, or The Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed. They were each 3/4 of a great album with an additional quarter of filler; perhaps this more than anything else is what ultimately kept them underground in these years. (Ironically, the album that comes closest to greatness, Village Green, is the sole LP from this run that did not chart in the UK or US whatsoever.)

Regardless, it wasn't until the transatlantic hit of 1970's "Lola," from the underrated Lola Versus Powerman & The Moneygoround, Part One, that The Kinks began to restore themselves to their former glory; at the time, it must've seemed like a surprise fluke, but hindsight shows that The Kinks had spent those years honing their craft until it was simply too great to remain unnoticed.

The Kink Kronikles has become the seminal document of this period, completely forgoing the early hits like "You Really Got Me," "All Day & All Of The Night," "Tired Of Waiting For You," "Set Me Free," "A Well Respected Man" & the rest in favor of the village green golden years of 1966-1971. In the US, the hits were few (just 2 in the Top 40—"Sunny Afternoon" & "Lola"), while in the UK, it seemed for every great song that hit ("Waterloo Sunset" at #2) there was an equally great one that missed ("Victoria" at #33). & with the UK market still largely segregating album tracks & single tracks, there were a flood of great B-sides that got lost in the shuffle.

The Kink Kronikles, then, came along to address the problem. It was largely the passion project of one man, rock journalist John Mendelsohn, who essentially programed a mixtape of his favorite Kinks songs & released it as a two-disc set with a catchy name (& no input from the band).

In so doing, Mendelsohn is to The Kinks what Harry Smith is to American folk music: He saw a world within that music & set out to build his own version of it. It is said that the epic poets of ancient times remembered their tales by creating what became known as a "memory castle," a large mental estate that they would picture themselves walking through as they told their tales, to help remember the greater structure of their titanic story. Harry Smith's stream-of-conscious Anthology Of American Folk Music programming has been compared to this technique, as should Mendelsohn's Kronikles.

The Kink Kronikles is comprised of four 7-song sides, each of with has a different theme: Side A is places, Side B is ambition, Side C is character studies, & Side D is love songs.

That The Kink Kronikles succeeds overall is a credit both to The Kinks' music & Mendelsohn's vision. However, like the studio albums, to my ears it's only about 3/4 perfect, with a couple of bum tracks standing in the way of true greatness.

Side A [Places]

1. Victoria
2. The Village Green Preservation Society
3. Berkeley Mews
4. Holiday In Waikiki
5. Willesden Green
6. This Is Where I Belong
7. Waterloo Sunset

The Good: The album opens exactly where it should, with the epic "Victoria," a survey of where Ray Davies' romanticism intersects with the dream of a nostalgic reality. "The Village Green Preservation Society" makes a shockingly good second cut, taking the landscape of "Victoria" & crafting a more immediate vision. This is contrasted by the American superficiality of a "Holiday In Wakiki" (Key line: "& even all the grass skirts were PVC"), which makes songs like "Berkeley Mews" all the more poignant in their effortless scenery. Everything peaks with the cool nostalgic rush of "This Is Where I Belong" & "Waterloo Sunset," two of the most stunning songs The Kinks ever cut.

The Bad: "Willesden Green." Although I love this song & of itself, it is weird--really weird--& simply isn't up to par with everything that surrounds it. The song works as a curiosity from the neglected (& itself weird) Percy soundtrack, but doesn't deserve to be on this otherwise near-definitive sampler of the era; tellingly, it has not appeared on either of The Kinks' recent box sets, 2008's Picture Book & 2014's Anthology: 1964 - 1971.

The Solution: Replace "Willesden Green" with "Picture Book." While it is not about places per se, it fits into the same theme of nostalgia. It also fits neatly between the vacation of "Holiday In Wakiki" & the homecoming of "This Is Where I Belong" (giving the effect of sorting the photos from your trip as you return home) & gives the underrepresented masterpiece of Village Green another classic on the collection (Mendelsohn only had a single track off of this album on his original collection, whereas the inferior Face To Face received 3).

Side B [Ambition]

1. David Watts
2. Dead End Street
3. Shangri-La
4. Autumn Almanac
5. Sunny Afternoon
6. Get Back In Line
7. Did You See His Name?

The Good: This is the album's most nebulously-themed side, yet for the most part it makes perfect sense: The high school idolizing of "David Watts," the young adult poverty reality of "Dead End Street," the mansion-on-a-hill adulthood of "Shangri-La," the neighborhood pride of "Autumn Almanac," the rich man's sloth of "Sunny Afternoon." The juxtapositions of naive & jaded, poor & rich, & community & individualism all make for a virtual cross-section of the British class system—or at least, one weird rock band's version of it.

The Bad: The album side ends, then, with "Get Back In Line," which I've always found to be a listless track from Lola, & "Did You See His Name," a chipper stab at gallows humor that Mendelsohn calls the most obscure song on the album. It very well may be, but there are other tracks that would work better.

The Solution: Replace "Get Back In Line" & "Did You See His Name" with the superior vignettes "Two Sisters" & "Do You Remember Walter." Both continue the ambition theme far better than the original songs ("Two Sisters" in particular may be the most evocative portrait of ambition in the Kinks' canon, with the housewife in curlers up against her luxurious single sister) & pick up where the previous "Sunny Afternoon" leaves off.

Side C [Characters]

1. Fancy
2. Wonderboy
3. Apeman
4. King Kong
5. Mister Pleasant
6. God's Children
7. Death Of A Clown

The Good: I mistakenly thought of this as the "men" side, until I read Mendelsohn's liner notes, which expresses them as characters. In this regard, it works, especially with "Wonderboy" becoming the "Apeman," the cloying "Mister Pleasant" balanced by the lovely "God's Children," & the oddball "Death Of A Clown" as the finale.

The Bad: In a word, "Fancy." Until I read Mendelsohn's liner notes, I had wondered if "Fancy" was a mistake on the part of the record label as a substitute for "Dandy." The titles of the songs look alike & are from the same album, so it was possible, it seemed. However, after reading Mendelsohn's notes, it is clear this is no mistake at all. In "Fancy" is the thesis to the entire project for him: "No one can penetrate me / They only see what's in their own fancy." OK, a nice & telling line, but unfortunately, it's trapped inside a completely boring & dated Eastern-influenced song that makes "See My Friends" sound as sprightly as "You Really Got Me." The beauty of The Kinks' music in this period is how it served as a retreat from head-on psychedelic rock; here is a misbegotten relic that throws everything back into the sunshine daydream of a time that The Kinks seemed to be seeking shelter from. (He further admitted that he tipped the scale towards the Face To Face songs because at that point the album was about to go out of print. I respect his concern, but this should be no consideration on what songs belong on a definitive anthology as this.) Less pressing is "King Kong," which is certainly not horrible, but I've always found more annoying than enjoyable.

The Solution: Replace "Fancy" with "Dandy." "Dandy" is a vastly superior song & a quintessentially British song by the most quintessentially British rock group. Plus, I love the segue-way from the adolescent womanizing of "Dandy" into the dedicated fatherhood of "Wonderboy." As for "King Kong," I would replace it with Dave Davies' artfully melancholic B-side "This Man He Weeps Tonight." Sure, it doesn't pull the cute "Apeman"/"King Kong" trick of the back-to-back monkey songs, but it is a better song & seems to serve as a perfect transition between the primal, dedicated love of "Apeman" & the facade love of "Mister Pleasant." It is also simply a beautiful song.

Side D [Women/Love]

1. Lola
2. Mindless Child Of Motherhood
3. Polly
4. Big Black Smoke
5. Susannah's Still Alive
6. She's Got Everything
7. Days

The Good: The transition from "Lola" to "Mindless Child Of Motherhood" is so masterful that Freud could write an entire volume about it. Similarly, pairing "Polly" & "Big Black Smoke" call attention to Ray Davies' theme of the girl leaving the countryside for the city (although it makes me long for the third in the girl-leaves-home "trilogy," which would be the equally stunning "Rosie Won't You Please Come Home"); Ray writes the songs with a knowing eye for detail (the purple hearts & cigarettes) & with the hint that maybe, just maybe, the girl is led into prostitution (a half a million people can't be wrong...). &, of course, "Days" ends the album as perfectly as "Victoria" began it: In the wistful bosom of nostalgia.

The Bad: "She's Got Everything." This is a decent song (& B-side for "Days), but ultimately does not fit in here. It was recorded outside of the scope of the other songs in early 1966 & sounds like it. If the album had included other stark B-sides like "I'm Not Like Everybody Else" or "Sittin' On My Sofa," "She's Got Everything" would fit in fine. However, here it sticks out like a sore thumb almost as badly as "Fancy," only with a sound that is closer to "Till The End Of The Day" than anything else here. Granted, it's a great sound, it just doesn't fit with its surroundings. & it would've been nice to get "Rosie Won't You Please Come Home" in there to gather all of Ray's affecting girl-leaves-home trilogy in one place.

The Solution: Take out "Susannah's Still Alive," put "Rosie Won't You Please Come Home" after "Mindless Child Of Motherhood," followed by "Big Black Smoke" & "Polly" so that the girl-leaves-home trilogy is completed in chronological order. It's just such a lovely set of songs & anchors the center of the women/love theme. (For the record, "Susannah's Still Alive" is a GREAT song that is worthy of this set, but ultimately I find the girl-leaves-home trilogy so special that it merits inclusion over "Susannah." Plus, although that means where down a Dave Davies song, the fact that "This Man He Weeps Tonight" was included elsewhere keeps the score even. & it also gets another song from Face To Face on here, as Mendelsohn would've liked.) Finally, replace "She's Got Everything" with "Village Green." I love "Village Green" (you can read my appreciation of it here); for me, it is The Kinks' finest exercise in nostalgia. Also, it bridges the "girls" theme of this side & the memories-filled "Days," as it is a song about visiting a former love in a country home that has been left & missed, among many, many other things. (& throw in the fact that "Polly" ends with the line "I think that Pretty Polly should've gone back home" & "Village Green" is all about returning to the girl you left behind & you have a smooth thematic transition.) It also sets up a nice balance for the set: The second song is "The Village Green Preservation Society" & the second-to-last song is "Village Green." Done.

Here, then, is my own perfected running order for The Kink Kronikles, with apologies to John Mendelsohn & respect to The Kinks:

1. Victoria
2. The Village Green Preservation Society
3. Berkeley Mews
4. Holiday In Wakiki
5. Picture Book
6. This Is Where I Belong
7. Waterloo Sunset
8. David Watts
9. Dead End Street
10. Sangri-La
11. Autumn Almanac
12. Sunny Afternoon
13. Two Sisters
14. Do You Remember Walter?
15. Dandy
16. Wonderboy
17. Apeman
18. This Man He Weeps Tonight
19. Mister Pleasant
20. God's Children
21. Death Of A Clown
22. Lola
23. Mindless Child Of Motherhood
24. Rosie Won't You Please Come Home
25. Big Black Smoke
26. Polly
27. Village Green
28. Days

At least until I switch something around again.

(For John Mendelsohn's original running order & liner notes, you can check them out right here: