Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Kinks: Kinda Kinks (1965)

(Pye [orig] / Castle [reissue])


After the hardscrabble, consciously raw R&B of the Kinks' debut album, Kinda Kinks finds the band smoothing out some of its rough edges while finding their aggressive muse much more convincingly, their time on the road having paid off in their performance abilities. Despite its reputation as amateurish and vapid, this is the first excellent Kinks LP, although it is enhanced vastly if you track down the 23-track CD version.

The appeal of Kinda Kinks is that it captures Ray, Dave, Mick, and Pete at their peak as the band they initially intended to be: frayed-edge Big Beat confrontation snarlers. In modern parlance, think of it as punk-blues: "Look for Me Baby," "Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight," "Come on Now," and "Got My Feet on the Ground" have the grit of the Stones with an extra push -- Ray writes in the American black music vernacular far more convincingly than his peers. Unfortunately, his voice continues to strain, all too dignified and British to really wash over the consistently excellent music. That's a minor carp when the band is so tight, the songs so addictive and convincing. You forget any problems you have with the presentation and dance your ass off. (And Dave's much more limited voice, perversely, can really sell a groove.)

The number of covers on Kinda Kinks is reduced dramatically; we're left with two, an able and impressive "Naggin' Woman" and a crushingly tepid "Dancing in the Street," although it's a sort of thrill to hear the Kinks take on Motown so soon after the covered song was recorded. The original is just too famous and beloved, and there's no comparison, and to boot Ray is far out of his element.

But where Kinda Kinks really spreads out is on the ballads, which find Ray coming into his own at last. The delightfully catchy "Don't Ever Change" and "You Shouldn't Be Sad" owe a bit of debt to Paul McCartney's slow ones for the Beatles, but their charm is considerable, while "So Long" -- on which Ray even sounds like Paul -- carries the weight and emotion of something like "I'll Follow the Sun" even farther. Without the vague hint of self-regard and pretension McCartney always brought, "So Long" nails a romantic longing and regret with painful ease that foretells the many treasures to come in the Kinks' catalog.

The most famous of the more toned-down and sophisticated songs here, "Tired of Waiting for You," gave the Kinks a smash hit (their last for twenty years in America), and it's a unique, stunningly far-reaching bit of adolescent heart. Ray Davies mumbles out much of the vocal from what sounds like the corner of his mouth, as though he doesn't really want to hear, while the band seems to intentionally plod along to suggest the boredom with which the narrator struggles. Held-back quiet anger, sustained for three minutes, would soon become a Kinks treatment; "Set Me Free," heard in the disc's bonus tracks, is an equally stirring example, while "See My Friends" adds vaguely Eastern textures and a menacing drone to craft one of the most remarkable early Kinks records, on which the band begins to lose their handle on the anger. Instead of giving vent to it at last, they'd come to move in the opposite direction.

"Something Better Beginning," familiar to Americans for its inclusions on the first Kinks Greatest Hits record, is a forlornly tentative romantic classic, with an apprehension toward new love that's atypical for pop lyrics and mature far beyond the band's years. But most intriguing of all is "Nothin' in the World Can Stop Me Worryin' 'Bout That Girl," buried on Side One with most of the fast ones, capturing a creeping, brooding Skip James undercurrent with the put-upon sensitivity of Davies' more accomplished new songs. He still can't compare to the blues greats, but he finds a niche here, a low-toned near-growl full of nuance and hurt that makes one wish the band had recorded more in this regard. It sounds unhinged, scary even, and there's nothing else like it in the Kinks universe.

You will, however, bear witness to some equally striking material in the bonus tracks if you pick up the Castle CD (and, hopefully, the forthcoming reissue). As I said when discussing the first LP, I don't typically plan to ever discuss bonus tracks within album reviews, for two reasons: They're not part of a given album and shouldn't be a consideration when giving an opinion of the full product, and we will be discussing them in a different, to-be-determined format at a later date. But the first four Kinks albums depend too much on the bonuses, and have too much excellent and crucial supplementary material, for me to entirely ignore the extra cuts.

The classics stream forth after the album ends: "Ev'rybody's Gonna Be Happy," a weird, skittering single that was quite a hit, even though it takes longer to fully comprehend than most of their '60s singles; the U.S.-beloved "Who'll Be the Next in Line," a prototypical nonconformist statement; the aforementioned two-pronged genius attack "Set Me Free" and "See My Friends"; and the sweetly cutting, brutal "A Well Respected Man," a rather obscure EP track that managed over the years to become one of the band's most popular early numbers.

But two songs you're less likely to have heard before stand out. First up is "I Need You," not to be confused with the near-simultaneous Beatles song, the most abrasive and ruthless early Kinks rocker. If "All Day and All of the Night" and reflected the band's growing virtuosity and accomplishment since "You Really Got Me," this casts a a shadow over both, bearing down on the feedback, the pounding, the crunchy guitars and delectably simple riffage, and (especially) the emotional intensity. It's inexplicable that this wasn't an A-side. "Till the End of the Day" would soon go even further.

The final track on the Castle CD is time-stoppingly incredible. "I Go to Sleep" is a frequently covered solo piano demo from the Ray Davies catalog, never properly recorded by the Kinks, but this deserves to be in their canon. A ghostly, panging lament of a loss, conquering her absence with her presence in his dreams, it is quite, quite a song, and Ray has never sounded ghostlier or more destroyed. Yet again, he explores vocal avenues here he would never again approach, and for all the brilliance the Kinks would offer in the years ahead, that is a pity. Do not miss this song. If buying some pricey import copy of Kinda Kinks is the only way you can get it, do that. Run, jump, fly to get to it. And don't listen to anyone else; if you dig the Kinks at all, you will dig this album.

The Kinks (1964)

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