Ray Davies, "Working Man's Cafe" (New West Records)
Brits have a long tradition of helping Americans see their own country better. Witness the British Invasion itself, in which bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals and the Kinks took American grass-roots musical traditions, digested them and came forth with something entirely original.
A generation on, the Kinks' main creative force, Ray Davies, is still doing it — albeit in a very different way.
Davies' incisive blend of astute observation and cutting social commentary makes a welcome return in "Working Man's Cafe," a not-quite-concept-album that manages both to be intimate and take on globalization all at once.
Davies has always gravitated toward the common man and his travails; no one, not even Springsteen, sings about dead-end jobs and being lost in one's own land better than he does. And in tracks like "Vietnam Cowboys," "No One Listen" and "The Real World," he gives shape to a post 9/11 disaffection that is often hard to put into words.
Sure, he mentions Wales in one song. And sure, the English "front room" sensibilities of Davies' upbringing are still evident. Nevertheless, this album feels both American and critical of America in an affectionate way. "Everything around me seems unreal/Everywhere I go it looks and feels like America," Davies sings in the title track. It's not necessarily a compliment, but nor is it an easy insult.
But Davies is not just a poet. He's still a rocker, too, with a healthy dose of insolence woven into his now time-enhanced music.
The tracks on "Working Man's Cafe" owe more of a stylistic debt to the Arista-years Kinks of the late 1970s and early 1980s than they do vintage 1960s stuff, and that's a good thing. Davies has always known how to balance anger and melancholy, and "Working Man's Cafe" is no exception. When he sings, "I believe I wanna pray but don't know what to," he's moving fast and lamenting at the same time — a lot like much of the world these days.
The tunes on "Working Man's Cafe" may not be quite as catchy as their ancestors on classic Kinks albums of disaffection like "Low Budget" and "State of Confusion," but they more than make up for it in content. If you're a Davies fan, this is a can't miss; if you're not and you pick up this album, you probably will be.