Paying tribute to the Kinks' Ray Davies
New CD offers covers of classics
(CNN) -- "He writes about nothing much," rock critic Nik Cohn once wrote, "streets and houses and pubs, days at the seaside, little bits of love, drabness and things that don't change, stuff like that."
Ray Davies, he observed, was never fashionable, and his songs for his band, the Kinks, were "as pared as nursery rhymes."
Cohn wrote that in 1969, when the Kinks were on the outs in their native England and could not buy a hit in America.
The smashes of the early British invasion -- "You Really Got Me," "All Day and All of the Night," "Tired of Waiting for You" -- had given way to character-driven, introspective, often intensely British songs, tunes like "Dead End Street," "David Watts" and "Village Green."
They were not, for the most part, what the record-buying public wanted, certainly not the American record-buying public. The band's 1968 concept album, "The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society," did not even make the U.S. Top 200.
The Kinks turned it around not long after. They had a Top 10 hit with "Lola," got to tour America (they'd been banned for three years), became staples of late-'70s FM radio, even managed the MTV-friendly "Come Dancing" in 1983.
But Ray Davies never really fit in. He moved to the beat of his own metronome, even when writing bombastic, audience-friendly songs like "Give the People What They Want." He never became a jukebox hero, an idol of guitarist-worshipping boys, a favorite of dancing couples.
But for a few, he was -- and remains -- beloved.
"He is one of the main reasons I started writing," says singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith, who calls himself the "biggest Kinks fan on the planet."
When he was 15, Sexsmith says, he heard "All Day and All of the Night" on the radio. The next day he bought the best-of "Golden Hour of the Kinks" at a record store.
"I loved Elton John, the Beatles, the Who ... but he was the first rock star with whom I could relate," says Sexsmith, whose songs are known for their catchy melodies and shy, unassuming lyrics. "There was always something awkward about him."
'Kind of a secret society'
Sexsmith is one of 16 artists -- including Davies himself, singing with Blur's Damon Albarn -- who cover Kinks songs on "This Is Where I Belong: The Songs of Ray Davies and the Kinks" (Ryko), a tribute album to the King Kink.
The songs covered range from early Kinks' rockers, such as "Stop Your Sobbing" and "Who'll Be the Next in Line," to the late-period "Art Lover" and "Better Things."
But the majority come from that classic 1966-71 era in which the band made six albums -- "Face to Face," "Something Else by the Kinks," "The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society," "Arthur," "Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround," and "Muswell Hillbillies" -- almost all of which were ignored in those psychedelic/hard-jamming times, and don't exactly sell like hotcakes today (despite the reissue work of Castle Communications).
"There is kind of a secret society to it," says Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan. He's surprised that's still the case. "I've loved the records for so long, I forget that to the world at large they're not so well known."
"It wasn't until I got to college that I heard the good stuff," says Chris Collingwood of Fountains of Wayne.
For Collingwood's band mate and longtime friend Adam Schlesinger, those songs symbolized the kinds of music the two wanted to write when they were starting out.
"One of the things we try to do is write character portraits, rather than songs that say how we feel," he says. "Davies creates vignettes. They're not necessarily about Ray Davies."
'The songs are universal'
The songs and artists on "This Is Where I Belong" are an interesting mix.
Fountains of Wayne does the hopeful "Better Things." Yo La Tengo took on the droning acoustic ballad "Fancy." Jonathan Richman turns "Stop Your Sobbing" into one of his laid-back folkabilly casuals. Sexsmith performs the title song with a joyous defiance.
Most artists remain true to the Kinks' original arrangements, but there are exceptions: Josh Rouse offers an jazzy reading of "A Well Respected Man," and Tim O'Brien expands on the early C&W origins of "Muswell Hillbilly."
The performances illustrate the songs' versatility, notes Collingwood. "The songs are universal," he says. "It doesn't matter who plays them."
In his liner notes, Davies seems pleased with the choices. "The artists have ... not gone for the obvious hit songs but instead found some lesser-known material that is a welcome surprise to me."
For the past few years, Davies has generally performed solo or with a small backup group.
On his "Storyteller" tour a few years ago, the singer read from his autobiography, "X-Ray," and played songs from the band's history, explaining their origins. His shows are now intimate affairs, a far cry from the theaters and arenas the Kinks played in the '70s and '80s.
Yo La Tengo got the opportunity to play behind Davies on a few dates.
"It was a great experience," says Kaplan. "You're sort of warned against meeting your idols, but I don't take that too seriously. I'm glad to have the view of him -- or anybody -- enlarged or enriched."
Sexsmith, on the other hand, couldn't bear to meet the man just yet. "I was recently in Austin [Texas], and he was there doing an interview. The DJ said if I stuck around [I could meet him], but I got cold feet. I went running from the radio station."
Either way, the two agree there's something approachable and timeless about Davies' music.
"[My love for the band] has changed so much over the years. It's been a factor for so long it's hard to address now versus then," says Kaplan. "But it hasn't lost its resonance."
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