For an artist so quintessentially British, Sir Ray Davies’ new and unexpected exploration of America — both as a cultural flashpoint and an ideal — sure has the feel of authenticity. Defying the odds, his recent album Americana provides an experience that is somehow uniquely true and universal. Not that this terrain was wholly unfamiliar to the former Kinks frontman. That band’s 1971 release Muswell Hillbillies examined American culture’s influence on a lad growing up in Britain. It was a portrait painted from a distance. But this new release is a totally different snapshot. As poet William Blake might put it, if the former focused on songs of innocence, this time around, songs of experience are heard.
Davies dreamed of coming to this country as a boy, hoping to witness the USA’s “talisman” firsthand. It’s worth noting that The Kinks were banned from performing stateside from 1965 to 1969, following a tussle on Dick Clark’s Where the Action Is, so disenchantment set in pretty soon. Given this history, brilliant songs like “The Invaders” and “The Great Highway,” which brilliant illustrate both the dream and its subsequent shattering, are to be expected. But the spoiling of the ideal only makes the graceful eponymous album-opener that much more touching, reflecting as it does an untainted vision of the still powerful American dream — all done with wit, style, and majesty. It is this intriguing contrast between the two visions that makes the album so extraordinary.
In short, Americana is no simple trip to nostalgia. Several songs are searing portraits of 21st Century life in our country. “The Deal” and “Poetry” painfully illustrate our current shallow cultural milieu while “Change for Change” — with its never-ending ethical question — hits hard to anyone paying attention. Davies’ lyrical archery has rarely been better than it shows to be on these songs. The back-up band The Jayhawks delivers the work with polish and ingenuity, always restrained yet full of passion and an immaculate responsiveness that is an absolute delight. Reflecting a Midwestern sensibility that works here like a charm, the group is easily on par with Wilco when they paired up with Billy Bragg on 1990’s Woody Guthrie modernization Mermaid Avenue. In truth, this album (recorded at Davies’ Konk Studios in London) is a distant cousin to the Guthrie project…except for the folk poet in question is alive this time.
While The Jayhawks’ instrumental ability is quickly apparent, their skill as harmony vocalists takes this record to another level, and a deeper one at that. Davies’ music — whether it’s with The Kinks or as a solo artist — has always been typified by marvelous harmonies, and The Jayhawks deliver on every song. As well, pianist Karen Grotberg shares lead vocals on “Message From the Road” and “A Place In Your Heart,” reminding listeners that Davies’ songs still transcend gender quite well.
True to the nation that inspired it, the tracks are diverse, from heavy metal (“The Mystery Room”) to Western swing (“A Place In Your Heart”) to country-rock (“Rock ‘N’ Roll Cowboys”) to Anglo anthem rocker (“The Great Highway”). “A Long Drive Home to Tarzana” has distinct echoes of Santo & Johnny’s “Sleepwalk” from the late ‘50s — likely a favorite of a younger Ray. Several spoken word interludes link a few of the tracks with masterful storytelling. The piece about the late Alex Chilton and the timeless power of song is particularly moving. Aside from the good news that there may already be a sequel in the can, there’s really not much more to add here. Personally, I think this may be the finest album of 2017.
Note: Davies’ 2013 book Americana: The Kinks, the Riff, the Road: The Story is assuredly a perfect companion to this album.
PS. You may also enjoy our post Appreciating The Kinks’ Veddy, Veddy British Period. Plus, for some more Americana, check out our posts on Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson and Bob Dylan’s Planet Waves.
Photo: Ray Davies by Paul Kane/Stringer (courtesy Getty Images)