"we can only do what it seems to us we were made for, look at this world with a happy eye but from a sober perspective.”

-W.H. Auden

Kinks Khoral Katastrophe

The Kinks Choral Collection
Ray Davies
Decca (2009)

Ray Davies’ The Kinks Choral Collection is a novelty piece, and the British saw right through it. It floated in at #28 on the UK charts, flitted down a couple slots, and finally faded away altogether. The album is a collection of 15 Kinks songs re-recorded by Davies and the Crouch End Festival Chorus. Considering how it faired in the UK, there is little hope for success in the US when it hits the shelves on November 10th (though Davies seems to have a bit of optimism, as he is touring the US this winter).

I’m not saying that I think it should succeed. Orchestral rock is a terrible genre. Most of the songs in the orchestral rock vault are arranged by giddy fan-boys with minimal credentials (just google “symphonic rock” and you’ll get a taste). However, The Kinks Choral Collection is arranged by Ray Davies himself. That gives it a bit of promise, no?

A bit of background: before recording this album, Davies performed with the Crouch End Festival Chorus at the BBC Proms, a summer-long classical music festival. (I imagine it to be the British version of the Boston Pops: a so-so orchestra with weird guest performers led by a supposedly charming conductor). However, there’s a reason why Aerosmith simply performed with the Boston pops and did not record an album with them (besides the fact that no one wants another Aerosmith album). Orchestral rock is gimmicky (think Sister Act 2). It is also predictable—if you’ve heard the choral introduction to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” you know what you’re in for. So, when I heard the beginning of the Choral Collection—a random smattering of Kinks hits, including Waterloo Sunset, Victoria, and You’ve Really Got Me—I was disappointed, but not surprised, by their awkwardness and my lack of interest.

After a disastrous beginning, though, the album slides into a surprisingly satisfying middle section - a medley of songs from The Village Green Preservation Society, The Kinks’ 1968 concept album. After listening through the six-song medley, I started to believe that perhaps Davies knew what he was doing. Maybe in a moment of inspiration, Davies saw his music for what it is: pure entertainment. Perhaps, I thought to myself, he posses the rare ability to recognize and play up the ridiculousness of his pop music. After all, if anyone has this ability it would be Davies. Could you imagine a rock star today writing a song like Dedicated Follower of Fashion?

Davies’ cred as a self-aware musician is visible in the original VGPS album. It was recorded during the band’s vaudeville phase (why don’t modern acts go through phases anymore?), which never caught on in the US. It’s an incredibly fun album, lending itself well to a choral re-imagination. Orchestral rock may be tacky, but it somehow seems well suited for pop songs that include the lyric “We are the Sherlock Holmes English Speaking Vernacular/ Help save Fu Manchu, Moriarty and Dracula.”

Unfortunately, my fantasies about Davies’ artistic insight were, in the end, dispelled. The final song on the album is “All Day and All Of The Night,” an energizing Kink Klassic that my dad once told me was my parents’ wedding song (a fact that my mother flatly denies). I love this song, so I listened with high expectations. What I heard was crushing. The recording begins like an over-energetic college a cappella song and ends like a horrifying high school glee club performance. Hearing such an excellent song transformed into a musical monstrosity was worse than hearing it in a Jolly Rancher’s commercial ten years ago. The success of the Village Green arrangements, it seems, was accidental. My suspicion was confirmed by an interview in The Daily Express, in which Davies says:

“When we made those records in the old days, we’d go into the studio, lay down the tracks and vocals and put the thing out. The process was so rapid, we never had time to think beyond making a two and a half minute record. I’m not saying The Kinks were displeased with the results, we made some tremendous records, but a song like See My Friends, for example, presents so many possibilities for experimentation. The inspiration behind that particular recording on the new album was hearing Indian Fishermen singing and chanting.”

Indian Fishermen inspired this album? Davies has gone off the deep end. Yet despite all its unevenness (and apparently un-self-awareness), I recommend that Kinks fans go pick it up on iTunes or at least listen to a track or two on YouTube. And if you are not a Kinks fan, go buy yourself the original Village Green record instead: it’s Davies at his best, before he encountered the Indian Fishermen.

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