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.