Not like everybody else: Jem Records Celebrates Ray Davies

By Bob Bennett

Jem Records has released a tribute to Ray Davies as latest in a series which salutes the work of great songwriters in rock including John Lennon, Brian Wilson, and Pete Townshend.

Ray is the leader of The Kinks (who disbanded in 1996) and is a national treasure in Britain (he was knighted in 2017).

The Kinks (which included Ray’s talented brother Dave) should have been at the forefront of the “British Invasion” triggered by The Beatles coming to America.  But due to a silent ban by the American Federation of Musicians from 1965-69, The Kinks are less well known in the U.S. than their contemporaries, The Beatles, The Who and the Rolling Stones.

If you need an introduction, Ray could be compared to Bruce Springsteen; both write poignant songs about their country and culture.  Whereas Bruce leans towards songs about the travails of the working class and the downtrodden, Ray’s catalog is rife with unapologetic nostalgia for the glory days of the English Empire. Like Bruce, Ray is a keen observer of people and a master storyteller –  albeit with a cutting wit.

This tribute album was built the same way as the others in the series.  JEM recording artists like The Midnight Callers, The Weeklings and The Anderson Council picked their favorite Ray Davies tracks and created their take of the song.  Many of the 13 songs were recorded at Vibe Studios in New Jersey where Kurt Weil of The Grip Weeds (who also contributed 2 tracks) acts as producer and engineer.

There is no lack of source material, as Ray’s catalog spans some 40 albums.  The Kinks have been covered before – e.g.  Van Halen had massive success with “You Really Got Me” and “Where Have All The Good Times Gone”.  I appreciated some of the deep cuts that were selected over signatures  like “Waterloo Sunset”, “Shangri-La” or “Autumn Almanac” (untouchable masterpieces all).

Some standouts on the album:

“Do You Remember Walter” (The Anderson Council)  Probably one of the best songs Ray ever wrote, this song is about the pain and sadness of growing apart from a childhood friend – and perhaps about the gradual loss of most everything around you but the memories.  Peter Horvath’s strong vocals and a pounding rock rhythm lend the song newfound muscle.  The original intro (stolen for the ELO song “Mr Blue Sky” by the way) is inexplicably tamed down but the choruses evoke a teary eyed anger that only a broken relationship can produce.  Excellent.

“Days” (Lisa Mychols & Super 8)  A fascinating multi-layered reinterpretation of the song led by Lisa’s angelic vocals. The slightly menacing tone of Ray’s original crescendo has been replaced with joyful affirmations that invite grace.

“I Need You” (The Cynz)  Super strong and sassy vocals make this reinterpretation of the B side of the 1965 45 “Set You Free” a  standout.  Do I miss the sound of Dave’s guitar from the original – yes.  But The Cynz have taken us from the 60’s to the 80’s and left me wanting more with their artful cover.

“Picture Book” (The Airport 77’s)  The original was a bit of a romp which sounds like it was recorded “live” in one take.  Now the song has been made meatier with tighter vocals – without losing the playfulness.  A new ear worm is born.

“See My Friends” (The Grip Weeds) This song of loss and displacement gets thudding analog oomph,  transforming it from sad lament to an ominous dirge.  This is like the Who’s “I Can See For Miles” meets The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” as performed by The Smithereens.  Just wow:

There is also a perfect rendition of “David Watts” (The Gold Needles) .  No reinterpretation but I don’t care – it’s just like the original but with modern production quality.

The CD has a punchy sound with crystal clear vocals, which allowed me to pick out some lyrics I’d never understood before. This compilation gets my thumbs up.

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