- The Washington Times - Monday, February 20, 2006

Ray Davies

Other People’s Lives

V2 Records

“Other People’s Lives,” Ray Davies new solo album, opens with disconcerting howls of woozy feedback. When Mr. Davies makes his first vocal appearance amidst this chaotic swirl of noise, he lets out a sickly groan (“whoaughhh…”), and it sounds as if he’s ready to keel over before the album has even gotten under way. But Mr. Davies, the erstwhile lead singer, songwriter and guiding light of the much-beloved (and now dormant) hall-of-fame rock ‘n’ roll band, the Kinks, manages to pull himself together just in time, as his backing band kicks into a rather pitiless stop-and-go chord progression.

“Things are gonna change,” Mr. Davies declares, “this is the morning after.”

Of course, Ray Davies has been down countless times before, and has always somehow managed to get back on his feet and sing about it. He has weathered romantic breakups, nervous breakdowns, a suicide attempt, and even a recent shooting (he was seriously wounded in the leg while pursuing a mugger who had stolen his girlfriend’s purse in New Orleans).

All this in addition to his turbulent tenure with the Kinks, brawling around the world with his little brother (and Kinks lead guitarist) Dave, from the “Top of the Pops” to near obscurity and back again, several times over.

Mr. Davies’ continuing reliance on the power of songs to help him sort out his own notoriously “complicated” life and make sense of the world around him is especially touching because his reliance isn’t always matched by an equivalent amount of creative confidence.

Even after a hall-of-fame career, he still comes across as suspicious about his own talents and wearily resigned to song craft because, after more than 40 years on the job, he has no other coping mechanisms available. It is a somewhat perverse stance for someone who can be called one of the three or four most gifted songwriters of our time.

“Other People’s Lives” is Mr. Davies’ first official solo album, and his first studio set of entirely new songs since the Kinks finally sputtered to a halt in the mid-nineties. It finds him almost exactly where you would expect him to be after the 10-year interregnum.

The subject matter is vintage Davies — wry observations of the sort of small lives that rarely make their way into pop songs, diatribes against the dehumanizing effects of conformity and technology, exhortations of hopeful cheer, and a few wistful songs of loneliness and love.

But the perspective is slightly changed. There is a new ease and generosity to the songs, and that’s a welcome development — Mr. Davies has been rightly accused of writing like an old man since he was in his mid-20s. This may be his first genuinely grown-up record.

The 60 year-old Mr. Davies wears his rocker’s pedigree quite naturally, confident that he can find almost everything he needs to flesh out his songs within a basic two-guitar, bass and drums setup. This core instrumentation is judiciously accented with splashes of color — touches of saxophone, boogie-woogie piano, female ooh-ooh backing vocals and an organ that fills out the sound like musical fog.

After leading the Kinks for so many years, Mr. Davies is an instinctive small-band arranger — a vanishing art. He coaxes the best out of his players, making sure that each instrument serves the songs, working together to create a wealth of layered musical moods and settings.

Mr. Davies has always been open about mining his own past work for inspiration, and on “Other People’s Lives” he tosses off multiple allusions to old Kinks classics, as if his songs are all interconnected tiles in a single larger mosaic. There are lyrical references to “better things” and “sunny afternoons,” little musical quotes like the familiar two-chord “Tired of Waiting” vamp, and, in “After the Fall,” a sort of top-to-bottom renovation of “Lost & Found,” a hidden gem from the obscure eighties Kinks album, “Think Visual.”

Despite the familiar themes and instrumentation, each song has its own little twist of individuality. This is evident in the gentle English music hall lilt of “Next Door Neighbor,” which finds Mr. Davies dispensing tea and sympathy to a diverse trio of regular Joes; “All She Wrote,” a vicious and self-lacerating breakup song, with an explosive chorus and Mr. Davies singing with particularly bitter relish about a “big Australian barmaid”; and “Creatures of Little Faith,” the album’s big showcase ballad, featuring some notably evocative saxophone filigrees and Mr. Davies showing off his heart-melting higher range in the bridge.

“Run Away From Time” is another effortlessly catchy rocker, with Mr. Davies holding long growly notes against a humongous descending bass line, while “The Tourist” alternates a hypnotic tropical lull with nasty power chords that barge in with the disapproving editorial commentary. “Life After Breakfast” includes such jaunty words of encouragement as “don’t turn into a total embarrassment.” Ending the album is “Thanksgiving Day,” a mid-tempo anthem that summarizes the album’s disparate themes in a tale of homecoming and reunion, American-style.

“Other People’s Lives” may not be a masterpiece, but it is a dauntingly solid example of how even the most depressed, neurotic or misfitted among us can find purpose and meaning in life through song.

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