Saturday, August 30, 2008

Album Review: "The Village Green Preservation Society" by the Kinks

Okay I can't say I love the cover art. It looks like Porky Pig's about to pop out of it.

Since I began updating this blog regularly just about a year ago, I have been afraid to write about my all-time favorite albums. For one, I don't like getting gushy; I know firsthand that when I really, really like something I will praise it so completely and so stubbornly that I will come off as a hyperbole-spewing sycophant. Secondly, most of my so-called "favorite" albums are pretty predictable, boring choices, and if I want to keep this blog good and fresh there's no use in touting the greatness of Revolver when everybody else in the world already has. And as someone who values what little cool music cred he has, I have no intention of offending the fraction of hipsters that read this blog to keep up with the "hip times" (as I call them). What use do they have for another review of Murmur? None, my friends.

But to be honest, the main reason I don't usually bring up my absolute favorite albums in this blog is, well... writing about them is hard. I have to, like, sit and listen to the album, and think about why the album means so much to me. I have to get emotional, you see, and I don't have the time to do that every week of my life! I've got episodes of Heroes to watch! Not to mention that said "emotional" writing would take, like, hours and hours to write, resulting in a long sprawling post expressing every possible feeling I have about said album and why. Then I've gotta talk about my history with the album, the first time I listened to it, what it meant to me then, what it means to me now, hyadda hyadda yadda bullshit. Like some kind of overcooked Livejournal entry.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am no living musical tome to be consulted whenever you people deem it so. I cannot pour forth such emotions with such ease. I live ninety percent of my life with cautious non-emotion. I intend to keep things this way.

Now, Village Green Preservation Society is an album that will make me gush, fawn, cry, etc. etc. because I love it just so so much. So for the sake of everyone's - and my own - tight schedule, I'll try to keep this review as concise and logical as I possibly can.

So this is how it goes: the Kinks were one of the finest British rock bands of the 1960s. In the wake of the Beatles and the Stones and the Who and yadda yadda, they were overshadowed, and after "All the Day and All the Night" nobody really cared much for them anymore - especially in America, where they were banned from performing for some unspecified reason. Village Green, released in 1968, was their absolute nadir commercially, flopping both in the US and the UK. In retrospect, this makes no sense because it is a lush, beautiful album that is recognized by most people nowadays as one of their best. But alas, the Kinks were ignored until "Lola" became an international hit in 1970. "Lola" is a great song, but lots of songs on Village Green are just as good if not better. That gives you an idea of what we're dealing with here.

Village Green is the only album I have ever heard that sounds both fully produced and rough-hewn at the same time. Nothing is immaculately orchestrated; Ray Davies's voice doesn't always hit the notes, instruments are buried in the mix at times, not everything sounds quite right. Then the instrumentation swells, a violin finds its way into the mess, everything becomes beautiful in its cobbled-together sort of way. The songs are quite British, more British than any other British band in existence ever. But it's never condescending, obnoxious, gimmicky British - it's sweet, reflective, charming British.

Ray Davies writes a lot of songs about nostalgia, which is probably why this album wasn't exactly lauded in 1968. The title track namedrops Donald Duck, for Christ's sake! Same year Blue Cheer did Vincebus Eruptum! Imagine that. But like its unabashed Britishness, its nostalgia is no gimmick because Ray Davies understands the folly of nostalgia - namely, that people who wallow in nostalgia aren't necessarily happy people. As such, Village Green is filled with happy, jaunty British tunes about sad, lonely people who just want things to be like they used to be. "Do You Remember Walter?" wallows in a dead friendship. "Picture Book" describes an album full of pictures of "those days when you were happy / a long time ago." "Big Sky" expresses wonderment at the uncaring nature of the universe - the Big Sky's "too big to cry." "Animal Farm" advocates running away to a farm to escape a world that's gone "half-insane". Despite what the uppity title track might have you believe, Ray Davies doesn't seem proud to be living in a fantasy world. Life isn't that easy.

So while these songs brim with sadness, they are all wonderfully written and performed pop tunes, 15 right in a row. No bum tracks. Every time "Big Sky" pops into my iPod shuffle, I'm awestruck and I have to listen to about five or six more songs at least because they make me feel so happy. Even songs I don't like as much as others surprise me - the loopy bridge in "Monica" and the wonderful chorus of "All Of My Friends Were There" being only two examples. And these aren't a bunch of samey-sounding songs either. You've got variation up the ying yang: "Picture Book" is perfect ramshackle pop; "Animal Farm" is an impossibly beautiful number with tasteful orchestration; "Wicked Annabella" is a fuzz-rock number that sounds like it was written to scare children on Halloween; "Last of the Steam-Powered Trains" is unusual blues-rock. These are not the kind of songs you would find on other immaculate British pop albums of the period, like the Hollies or Herman's Hermits (both bands I like, but y'know what I mean). The Kinks were the real deal.

Confession time: every time I hear The Zombies' Odyssey and Oracle I have to put this album on. It's a nasty habit; I play four songs of Odyssey and Oracle, remember how great Village Green is, and then play Village Green in its entirety. Maybe twice. Considering that I like the Zombies quite a bit, this is saying something.

There are many other Kinks albums I could have written about here - they were on a serious roll from '66 to '71, releasing wonderful album after wonderful album. Arthur, released a year after Village Green, is a serious contender for the Best Kinks Album championship belt. Something Else, released before Green, had "Waterloo Sunset" on it, plus a bunch of other songs that were practically just as transcendent. In context, Village Green could be viewed as just another great Kinks album, but I find that it hits a nerve no other Kinks album could. It's sad, reflective, beautiful, easy to listen to but hard to let sink in once you realize it's about friends leaving you and you childhood fading away and your hometown becoming unrecognizable. Bottom line: at 15 songs and 39 minutes, no other Kinks album could accomplish so much with such wit and economy. That's why it's so special.

And eventually everybody realized they fucked up. "Whoops! We ignored one of the finest pop albums of all time! Jimi Hendrix is dead! What the hell are we gonna do now??"

So don't fuck up! Go buy a copy of The Village Green Preservation Society for each of your children, right now! It's not an album that's going to expand your mind like other more prominent rock releases in 1968. No, Village Green is the aural equivalent of a big bear hug.

I mean, come on. This album just wants to give you a hug. Let it.

1 comment:

Adam said...

A few notes I have on this album:

- Village Green fared poorly upon its release because the general public (especially the general American public) really didn't give a shit about tales of nostalgia and Britishness and witty, orchestrated pop. Nah, they wanted drug-fueled psychedelia, blazin' guitar solos and "Fuck-the-status-quo" anti-Vietnam rebellion. Pit "Phenomenal Cat" vs. "Dazed and Confused"/"Sympathy for the Devil"/"In-a-Gadda-da-Vida"/hell, even "Time of the Season." Of course, Village Green's timeless subject matter continued (and continues) to resonate years after its release, while other more topical albums of the era fell a bit by the wayside.
- Mick Avory, in the land of Moon and Bonham, was criminally underrated, and I think he excels the most on this album, of all Kinks releases. Check out the sheer power he puts into "Starstruck," "Steam-Powered Trains," and "Picture Book" among others.

I thought I had more to say about this wonderful album but you pretty much covered it. One of pop music's best albums (even though sometimes I gravitate towards "Arthur" when it comes to The Kinks). And "...Walter" and "People Take Pictures of Each Other" are two of the most universally resonant songs ever written.