Learning that Ray Davies, erstwhile leader of the Kinks, was finally putting out his first elpee of original solo material, lo, these many years after his band's dissolution initially spurred some heavy mixed emotions from this longtime fan.
The lads' final albums were not, let's be charitable, the sound of a band or a composer working at the peak of their powers. It seemed pretty clear Ray'd run out of things to say with his band, which had grown rather complacent with its arena rock stance. Perhaps it was best to just remember Raymond Douglas Davies in those young and innocent days of sunny afternoons and village greens, of splendorous Britpop that grabbed from everywhere and sent it back to you all smartly polished.
Well, I've been listening to Other People's Lives (V2) for six months now, and all I can say is, "To hell with nostalgic melancholy!" Lives is the best release that Ray's affixed his name to in decades, and if the guy never releases another disc in his lifetime, it won't matter. It's a magnificent piece of autumnal rock 'n' pop.
In timbre, the album goes back to my favorite period of Davies' Kinkswork: the willfully eclectic era of character-driven tunes that gave us the great Face to Face, Something Else, Village Green Preservation Society trifecta. Moving to the U.S. several years ago would seem to have renewed Davies' far-reaching love of differing popular music styles: there are plenty of soulful flourishes (check the Stax-y horns on "Thanksgiving Day," the Motown-ish bassline on "Run Away from Time") on this disc, something that would've been beyond the reach of his earlier band, while the return of Latin rhythms that once would've been confined to the periodic bossa nova rip is also welcome. (Sweet use of flamenco guitar on the title song.)
Davies' band of hard-rock sessioneers is generally up to his demands, though on more than occasion, I still found myself missing brother Dave Davies' rave-up guitarwork, which could have, for instance, pushed the Credence-y countrified "The Getaway (Lonesome Train)" into pure cow punkery once the song breaks free. Love the "Lola"-esque acoustic guitar slam Ray uses to open "Is There Life After Breakfast?" though.
Of course, with Davies, a big part of the show remains his lyrics: arch observations (as in the obligatorily music halled "Next Door Neighbor"), dramatic monologues ("All She Wrote," wherein a dazed lover reads an accusatory Dear John letter that turns into something darker) and generalized admonishments to Buck up, Laddy, it ain't no-how permanent ("Breakfast"). Ray being Ray, he still can't resist shoe-horning a nattering lamentation about the loss of good old-fashioned standards ("Stand Up Comic") into the proceedings.
But it's the only misstep in a set that also includes more effectively sardonic takes on tabloid journalism and tourism. More often, Davies' view of modern life's travails is ruefully experienced; though he's singing about "characters," for the first time in ages, you can feel the songwriter inhabiting these other people's skins. It's a gift that I'd long feared the guy had lost after years of rock band living. Turns out all he needed to rediscover it was to do a walkabout in the U.S. of A. all by his lonesome…