Monday, 8 November 2010
RAY DAVIES - See My Friends
Ray Davies is a man who needs no introduction. A national treasure, Ray will always be best known for his 60s work with The Kinks. It’s likely you stopped listening to The Kinks after the release of their ‘Percy’ album in 1971, only to reconnect with them in 1983 when ‘Come Dancing’ became an unexpected UK top 5 hit. Unless you’re a die-hard fan, it’s unlikely you’ve heard any of the albums The Kinks released from 1971 onward, even though they tirelessly plugged on, releasing an album a year for the remainder of the decade. From that point, they sporadically released albums up until as late as 1992.
Outside of The Kinks, Davies has released a handful of solo albums which have earned a cult following (the first of which, ‘Return To Waterloo’ released in 1985 during a break in The Kinks’ schedule). As with those less famous Kinks albums, each of Ray’s solo works have moments of greatness - 2007’s ‘Working Man’s Cafe’, in particular, is a gem.
Ray Davies’s 2010 album ‘See My Friends’ is a celebration of his Kinks work, allowing many people who’ve been influenced by him a chance to put their stamp on his songs. In duet with Davies himself, the album features contributions from some musical heavyweights, alongside some potentially more interesting cult performers. While the inclusion of Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi and Metallica are guaranteed to help the album shift a few units (or more likely a few iTunes downloads of those individual tracks), kudos must be given to Davies for choosing to work with some less obvious collaborators: it was a surprise to see Pixies man Black Francis and New York indie heroes Spoon on his roll-call of friends.
Naturally, most of the guest performers have played it safely by choosing classic Kinks tunes from the 60s, but there are a couple of exceptions. The first of these opens the album, as Ray Davies teams up with the legendary Bruce Springsteen for a fairly workmanlike run-through of ‘Better Things’ (a track from the 1981 Kinks album ‘Give The People What They Want’). The original version is superb, being an optimistic song driven by a particularly loud drum kit and featuring a brilliant stabbing piano intro. This re-recording is well suited to Springsteen with its slightly bombastic approach. Springsteen’s voice sounds fine on the chorus, but on the verses – where he trades lines with Davies – it sounds huskier than ever and clearly sounds like he’s struggling. Davies’s vocal, on the other hand, features as much wistful charm as ever. Overall, the end result is okay, despite Springsteen not being in the best of voices. [For a superb cover of this number, check out the version recorded by Dar Williams for her 1997 album ‘End of the Summer’.]
The Kinks’ original version of ‘Celluloid Heroes’ is a gorgeous, slightly melancholy affair featuring lavish harmony vocals against a piano-rock base. The recording included here features none of the originals piano greatness, but surprisingly doesn’t suffer for that. Jon Bon Jovi and his right hand man Richie Sambora make this their own; Jon’s voice has real presence and Richie offers some classic sounding, soaring guitar lines. Ray Davies’s harmony vocals round out the sound to make this one of the album’s greatest moments. I have very mixed feels about the version of ‘You Really Got Me’ featured here. I have a great amount of respect for Metallica – and naturally, the original Kinks riff was one they could easily beef up. However, I’m not entirely sure that making it ten times heavier is an improvement. James Hetfield’s distinctive growl feels a little heavy handed too. On the plus side, with the slightly quicker pace the track has been given here, Davies sounds really energized when it’s his turn at the microphone.
After an intro featuring a few bars from ‘Days’, Mumford and Sons lend their folk-rock chops to ‘This Time Tomorrow’, a track originally featured on the ‘Lola vs Powerman’ LP. The original Kinks version is delivered with a stomp and with a heavily accented twang, so it’s a natural choice for Mumford. Davies takes more of a back seat for this number, but Mumford and Sons fans should find plenty of entertainment as Marcus Mumford and Ben Lovett’s raggedy vocals tear through a rather spirited performance of this lesser-known Davies composition. For ‘Lola’, Davies chooses to share vocals with Paloma Faith, who’s old-styled, slightly wobbly voice sounds superb here. The band in turn gives this famous Kinks’ number a rather forthright arrangement, with rumbling bass and a (most welcome) heavy leaning toward the piano. Kinks enthusiasts may be interested to know that Faith chooses the cherry cola line in her vocal, as per the Kinks’ single release, as opposed to the “proper” coca cola line from the original album recording. [It’s still amusing that in 1970 the BBC were more concerned about the song advertising a product than they were about it featuring a man falling in love with a transvestite].
‘Waterloo Sunset’ is one of those Kinks songs you’ve heard so often that it’s become part of our British musical heritage. While The Kinks’ 1967 original will always be the absolutely definitive version, the duet here with Jackson Browne is just superb. Featuring Davies, Browne and two acoustic guitars, the intimate nature of this recording captures both musicians in great form. With absolute professionalism, hearing Davies in close harmony with Browne just highlights what a beautifully written and arranged number ‘Waterloo Sunset’ is. While ‘Long Way From Home’ was never really one of my favourites, Ray’s duet with alt-country performer Lucinda Williams is somewhat dreary. I must confess, I’m not a fan of Williams’s heavily affected, drawling voice and the pace of this track just makes it worse. Her voice is really high in the mix too, almost drowning Davies out in the process.
Power pop legends Big Star recorded a storming version of ‘Till The End of the Day’ in the early 1970s as part of the sessions for their ‘Third/Sister Lovers’ album. Here, Chilton has been given the opportunity to perform that classic Kinks number alongside Davies. Naturally, Chilton’s delivery sounds supremely confident. The band are suitably punchy too: the drums loud and energetic, the organ work (although low in the mix) comes in heavy swirls. In addition, an angular guitar solo and a couple of complex bass runs help recreate the energy of the early Kinks sound. If you’re a Chilton enthusiast and like the Big Star rendition of ‘Till The End of the Day’ from ‘Third/Sister Lovers’, you won’t be disappointed. As a rather sad footnote, Chilton passed away a few months before the release of this album. While his death was far too premature, I’m sure he would have been delighted at being one of this album’s featured guests.
A take on ‘Dead End Street’ with Amy MacDonald is best described as ordinary. While the bar-room piano is quite fun, generally, little has been done here to add anything to the original performance. The warmth of the recording just doesn’t have the same vibe as the Kinks’ trebly 1966 recording and a spoken exchange between Davies and MacDonald at the close of the song is guaranteed to grate after a few listens. I can’t help but think this could have worked out better with KT Tunstall instead...
Since The Kinks’ 1965 single ‘See My Friends’ has a droning, psychedelic vibe (often credited as being one of the first releases to incorporate Indian raga sounds), it’s a perfect vehicle for the alternative rock band Spoon, whose own work features a strong basis of jangly vibes and lo-fi quirks. With lots of reverb, Britt Daniels’s vocal meshes with Davies’s against a wall of ringing guitars. The musicians involved choose (rather wisely) to play things as faithfully to the original as possible. Nothing here sticks out as being exceptional, but if you’re a fan of Spoon, you’ll probably want to check out this collaboration. During ‘This Is Where I Belong’, the guitars chime and the drum provides a solid backbeat. Black Francis’s very distinctive vocal is the main feature here, but he’s offered suitable backing harmonies from Davies. Factor in the slabs of organ work and this is very well suited to Black Francis, the sound here very much in keeping with the more rootsy styles he experimented with in the mid-’00s.
Ray Davies’s voice is the only real saving grace with regard to a re-working of ‘David Watts’, featuring Californian indie-rock band The 88. While the great piano part from the original is given plenty of volume in the overall mix, when combined with staccato guitar work and the general oomph The 88 insist on playing with, it’s really tiring. [For the definitive cover version of this, look no further than The Jam’s respectful version from 1978]. Following The 88, ‘Tired of Waiting’ sounds incredibly...tired. Snow Patrol’s frontman Gary Lightbody joins Davies here and while the track is tackled at a similar pace to the Kinks original, it just seems to sag under the weight of Gary Lightbody’s uninspired vocal.
While ‘All Day and All of The Night’ is a Kinks number familiar to all, it’s 1981 semi-reworking ‘Destroyer’ will possibly not mean a lot to many of you. In an attempt to be edgy in a post-punk way, Davies reworked ‘All Day...’s influential riff into a song which features a partly spoken word delivery. The level of anger on that original recording of ‘Destroyer’ may have sounded a little unnatural in the hands of The Kinks, but reproduced here as a duet between Davies and Smashing Pumpkins mainman Billy Corgan, it sounds great. Corgan’s guitar work concentrates on the simple chord pattern and his loud, nasal vocal style is an effective contrast to Davies. Davies, in turn, when delivering the spoken word parts, sounds better here than he had back in ’81. Corgan replaces the original pre-chorus from ‘Destroyer’ with the famous lyrics from ‘All Day and All of the Night’ to create a very effective medley, ending the disc on a high note.
As you may expect given the selection of featured performers, ‘See My Friends’ is a mixed bag. In some places, it sounds more like an album of people covering songs by The Kinks as opposed to an album of Ray Davies performing duets. In that respect, it’s almost certainly been geared to entertain fans of the guest performers rather than fans of Davies himself. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. If those listeners enjoy this album, that’s great. If it means they get exposed to Davies’s songs and then choose to explore The Kinks’ back catalogue...even better.
See the official EPK for the album here.
See Ray with Mumford & Sons on ‘Later...With Jools Holland’ here.
See Ray interviewed by Jools Holland here.
See Ray talking about the album on BBC News 24 here.