This Is Where I Belong: The Songs of Ray Davies and the Kinks

Here’s wishing you the bluest skies
And hoping something better comes tomorrow
Hoping all the verses rhyme
And the very best of choruses
Throughout all the doubt and sadness
I know better things are on the way

Ray Davies has always been God’s own optimist. A beaky Englishman with a crooked smile and the worst career timing the world has ever seen, he created a body of work that should shame other artists with its consistent grace and compassion, to say nothing of the fact that it’s full of cracking-good pop tunes.

Every 10 years or so, the Kinks catalog from the ’60s is reappraised as the stunning example of genius it always was. Village Green Preservation Society, Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), Something Else and Face To Face are some of the most breathtaking and inventive pop records ever made, and deserve their place in the Beatles/Stones/Beach Boys pantheon of pop artistry.

Whether that makes This Is Where I Belong a worthy contender for your record-buying allowance depends on what you expect from a record of covers. If you’re enamoured with the chosen artists, then a group of covers from a single source provides an interesting challenge. If your love affair is with the songwriter in question, you are more likely to question the motives of the artists doing the covering. If you love Jonathan Richman, you will love his very Jonathan Richman-like cover of “Stop Your Sobbing,” but if you are in love with Ray Davies, the Richman cover will appear pointless and faintly embarrassing. Bebel Gilberto is an inspired choice from the artist lottery; Bebel Gilberto singing the Brazilian-inflected “No Return” is a classic example of how to not walk through a funny door funny. The Kinks’ version was charming in its inappropriate ineptitude — the nasal Muswell Hill voice was so clumsy at mimicking a Tropicale inflection that it created its own space.

Fountains of Wayne’s opener “Better Things” is a good reminder of the high standard of the Kinks later, less-revered output. Even the chug-along rhythm section cannot dim Ray’s charm and optimism. Other late-period contenders are Queens of the Stone Age getting its sinister poppy rocks off in admirable fashion to “Who’ll Be The Next In Line,” and Lambchop’s watery raincoat version of “Art Lover.”

Josh Rouse’s “A Well Respected Man” has a summery vibe that takes some of the bitter sting out of the original and replaces it with a gentle whimsy. Matthew Sweet’s version of “Big Sky” is scarily like the original, but then that could be said of much of Matthew Sweet’s career. Bill Lloyd and Tommy Womack’s version of “Picture Book” is absolutely brilliant. This is where the geeks come into their own; this is where the people who have been mining the thrift-store vinyl for original mono tri-color Reprise label Kinks records score over the parvenu. There is such a fundamental understanding of inflection — they manage to capture the energy and the joy. Ditto Ron Sexsmith’s “This Is Where I Belong,” with its fairground keyboards and fuzzy guitar, while Yo La Tengo does quiet justice to “Fancy” and its droning psychadelia.

On the inappropriate side, Steve Forbert’s “Star Struck” suffers from the misapprehension that Davies’ and Forbert’s vocal similarities are enough to justify this sweetly unenthusiastic version. Cracker’s “Victoria” is unforgivably dull, and the closing version of “Waterloo Sunset,” featuring Ray Davies himself and Damon Albarn (from Blur, Britpop’s arch-Kinks revivalists) appearing live on the TV show “The White Room” in 1995, is utterly unnecessary.

The Minus Five’s glitterball mellotron epic reading of “Get Back In Line” wins the lighter-in-the-air, tear-in-the-eye moment. Land of hope and glory, indeed — this song is all too apt, about the period when Kinks were barred from performing and had to watch their promising career stall in the sidings while their contemporaries went on to make themselves household names and millionaires.

Life is unfair, but Ray will always find the bittersweet. All hail the songwriter’s songwriter, and God save the Kinks.

E-mail Shireen Liane at [email protected].

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