When people consider Green Day the elder statesmen of rock, forty years is an awful long time. But as of this year, that’s exactly how long the Kinks have been around. With this wave of releases, their later work has made the transition to SACD bliss most of the Stones’ best albums made two years ago, but the Kinks’ own best work wasn’t able to make the jump when it was reissued in the ’90s. It’s the honor all of their work deserves (not to mention the Beatles catalogue, damn it), but for now, we have to make do with the thoroughly mixed results the ’70s and ’80s gave us. What follows is a short guide to each of the Koch reissues, but keep in mind that every album here has been given top-shelf treatment with careful packaging and excellent liner notes. Since none of these reviews will consider the packaging or remastering, which are uniformly excellent, if you think I’m full of crap and One for the Road is great, it’s worth purchasing this new version.
The last great Kinks album was their first for Columbia, and it’s hard to imagine what the label thought when they first heard it. Heavily influenced by American blues and British folk traditions, the album is primarily acoustic and notably understated for its time. Following up the band’s renewed commercial potential after the unexpected success of
“Lola,” each song reveals subtle complexities within its misleadingly simple themes. “20th Century Man” kicks the album off, and it’s undoubtedly the best song, an archetypical Kinks epic about working-class folks disillusioned with the modern system. Ray Davies uses it to set up his album-long critique of modern times. This may be Davies’s most earnest record, and it’s the most essential of the reissues.
Preservation: Act 1
Four years after Davies produced his best album and possibly the best concept album ever, Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), the Kinks frontman plunged into his most ambitious undertaking ever. Using characters and themes from The Kinks
Are the Village Green Preservation Society and other portions of his career, Preservation could have been the crowning achievement of his career. Instead, Davies caved under record label and band mate pressure and produced a rushed, two-part story that began with this character-based mess. Too many songs ring too close to familiar melodies; even one of the best songs, “Sweet Lady Genevieve,” sounds like the Beatles’ “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill.”
Plus, the story doesn’t kick in until the final track, implying that this collection was far from finished when it was released. This laziness aside, the set is almost saved by lively production and some stand-out tracks, such as the single “Preservation,” which has been included as the opening song on this reissue.
Preservation: Act 2
The much-maligned second half of Preservation is twice as long and three times as messy. But it’s also a step up from its predecessor, recalling the Who’s later records and, by association, the recent Fiery Furnaces album Blueberry Boat. The announcements peppered throughout are useless, and, like Blueberry Boat, many of the songs are too messy to pay attention to. But quite often the fun to be had is infectious. “Mirror of Love” is cheeky goodness, and “Nothing Lasts Forever” sounds like a lost track from Velvet Underground’s Mo Tucker catalogue (with a bigger arrangement). The real tragedy: the performance that was the real purpose of the album was lost forever after everyone forgot to bring a camera along on the tour, but it turns out to be not so bad after all. This isn’t Arthur, but it’s way better than its reputation and good enough to warrant a listen or two from even a casual Kinksian.
The Kinks Present Soap Opera
Perhaps the most despised record in the Kinks catalogue, this bombastic, overstuffed monstrosity is damn good. Aging much better than the much more unified Kinks record that followed it, Soap Opera has a good sense of humor about itself and a joy in the songs that wouldn’t be seen in Davies for another ten years or so. Using snippets of dialogue, various harmonies and another huge horn section, Davies gives us a story that is just an excuse for more songs about his favorite subjects: fame (“Everybody’s a Star (Starmaker)”), the common man (“Nine to Five”), and coping with the shitty world (“Have Another Drink”). In the sea of post-Muswell concept records, this may be the one with the worst reputation — and the one that’s the best.
The Kinks Present Schoolboys in Disgrace
After Soap Opera (which will be re-released sometime in 2005) became the last straw for the band’s patience with Davies’s increasingly erratic (and increasingly bad) concept albums, they insisted their next work be a stripped-down, back-to-basics rock ‘n’ roll record. They didn’t exactly get it: Davies still insisted on using a unifying theme, the entirely generic invocation of childhood memories.
But this is clearly a nod to (parody of?) early basic rock, even while the lyrics betray the typical Davies sarcasm, like in the mocking ballad “The First Time We Fall in Love.” Most of the album falls flat, and even the great songs seem overly theatric, on par with contemporaries like Queen. But opener “Schooldays,” “The Hard Way” and the show-stopping chorus on “No Looking Back” make this album hard to ignore in the Kinks catalogue.
Moving from RCA to Arista, the Kinks finally tossed off the conceptual chains that bound them and moved into that other maligned rock genre: arena rock. Some of Davies’s most emotional songs are on this first attempt at the style. Closer “Life Goes On” is an excellent track, but the first three songs utilize some great choruses and the top-notch Davies lyrics that the rest of the album couldn’t possibly hold up to. That said, Sleepwalker is still a sign of better things to come, and while it isn’t up to par with Misfits, the highlight of the band’s latter-day catalogue, it won’t disappoint any fans of that record. This release also includes four b-sides, including the truly nasty “Prince of the Punks,” supposedly directed at Tom Robinson, with whom Davies had had a falling out. I like to think it is about Jonny Rotten, though, because I hate Jonny Rotten. Try it, it’s fun.
Misfits signaled the complete transformation of a British garage band into an arena-rock outfit. If only all arena rock was this good. Once again Davies sticks his best composition at the front of his set, and “Misfits” ranks among his best, even if it inevitably conjures up images of raising lighters and/or hitting the steering wheel during particularly heavy licks. Although “Black Messiah” continues the dangerous fake-Jamaican-accent trend that would eventually consume whole Kinks songs, everything from “A Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy” to “Live Life” demonstrates this is a superior record nearly all the way through. It’s also Davies’s most sincere work since Muswell Hillbillies and, not coincidentally, his best.
One for the Road
If anyone wonders what all the fuss is about old rock bands getting back together to tour, listen to this double live album to find out how easily legendary songs can be trashed by their very creators. On second thought, don’t. Just trust me and save yourself the trouble.
While the recent songs are casually performed and casually received, the classic Kinks songs on display (“You Really Got Me,” “Lola,” “20th Century Man,” “Victoria,” “David Watts”) have been destroyed by tempo changes, uninterested deliveries, and stadium necessities such as the indescribably terrifying guitar solo stuck in the middle of the decidedly guitar solo-averse “Victoria.” For most of the people who view the Kinks as just another band, the set will be confusing and forgettable. But for Kinks fans, the performances recorded here are simply, devastatingly, depressing.
Give the People What They Want
After discovering the benefits of being contemporary with their timely dip into arena rock, the band smoothly transitioned into the new-wave sound of the early-’80s and, for the most part, it fit Davies’s trademark sarcasm well. The title track was an obvious dig at the band’s current trends, but like many of the songs here, Davies brings a dull and uninterested delivery to the song that kills any energy it could have hoped for. Opener “Around the Dial” has its strong moments when it isn’t referencing past Kinks songs.
But the biggest rip-off here is “Destroyer,” which, despite its awesome tempo changes, can’t get past the shameless debt to “Lola” and “All Day and All of the Night” with cheeky delivery (though it’s an honorable attempt). Davies is still focused on suburban working-to-middle class people; this is clear on the lyrically strong “Yo Yo,” but even this song is ruined by the laziness of a bad chorus and a dead performance by the band. It wasn’t just Davies whose heart wasn’t in it this time around.
State of Confusion
I’m hard-pressed to think of a more appropriately titled record than the last successful Kinks album. With a band in shambles, Dave Davies attempting a solo career, and a collapsing confidence in the musical landscape, Ray Davies resorted to dark and troubled songs. But in true Kinks fashion, the only really upbeat song on the album, the atrociously campy “Come Dancing,” was a break-out hit, their biggest since “Tired of Waiting.” Much of the album is a tiring slog through the cheesier aspects of the 80s, with “Don’t Forget to Dance” the only one that is entertainingly dramatic. But “Property” works off a solid Kinks melody and the strong “Bernadette” gives Dave Davies’s voice –though not his pen — the final say on the album. As an 80s record, State of Confusion is not particularly embarrassing. But as a Kinks record, it’s best forgotten.
Word of Mouth
Here’s a surprise. After slowly descending into mediocrity, shedding original band members (with the exception of three songs featuring drummer Mick Avory, it was just the Davies brothers now), and altering their sound based on the commercial whims of the public, the Kinks put out a solid record, neither cheesy nor derivative. So it’s no surprise that it signaled the band’s descent into obscurity once more.
A “Hard Day’s Night”-like guitar stab opens the album and its opening song, “Do it Again,” an excellent rocker. The album suffers from many of the same problems that killed its 80s cousins (damn you, steel drums!), but the band seems reenergized, with Dave Davies giving his best instrumental performance since Misfits and turning in a solid ballad with “Living on a Thin Line.” This is a great pick up for Kinks fans, and a forgotten 80s gem.
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