Gave the People What They Had

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The period eulogized on the newly reissued Come Dancing: The Best of the Kinks--the Arista years, 1977-1986, when a third spate of commercial success arrived via such hits as "Do It Again" and "Come Dancing"--is also the band's most problematic. At least Ray had booze to blame for his mid-'70s concept albums, and he salvaged some dignity from his 1990s' Storytellers nostalgia by engaging in a fruitful collaboration with Yo La Tengo last year. Conversely, the Arista tenure contained some of the few moments in Davies' career when he had both his youth and his wits about him, but Dancing often finds him in a rush to abandon both. At their worst, the songs here exhibit that peculiar brand of desperation that causes an artist to begin imitating his imitators: "Catch Me Now I'm Falling" could pass for Greg Kihn, "A Gallon of Gas" for Donnie Iris; the 1980 live version of "You Really Got Me" opens with a guitar solo that lamely pisses on Van Halen's "Eruption." Then there's "Destroyer," which surely set a new standard for pandering to past glories: It opens with the line "Met a girl called Lola" and proceeds to steal its melody almost verbatim from "All Day and All of the Night." Title of the album on which it first appeared: Give the People What They Want.

A joke, of course, but the joke turned out to be on Davies: The very production techniques once intended to make the band sound current--heavy guitars, digital sheen, disco edits--now render these songs hopelessly dated; it's an effective reminder of why the words "arena rock" used to be an insult. Fortunately, it's also an occasional reminder of how a good song can overcome whatever handicaps a producer saddles it with. (Even if, as on all but one song here, the producer in question was the songwriter himself.) Ray screeches and solos his way through "Low Budget" like a bad Skynyrd parody, but there's no denying that chorus. "Come Dancing" no longer plays like the odious MTV staple it once was; age has turned its weightlessness into charm. Dancing even manages a six-song stretch--two each from Sleepwalker and Misfits, the irresistible "Do It Again," and the lovely "Better Things"--of unobtrusive production and peerless melody. In short, of vintage Ray Davies.

But while eight good songs in nine years might be a career for some bands, it's a slump for the man Pete Townshend once called the "only true and natural genius" of British rock. There's not a song on here you wouldn't trade for "Victoria" or "Sunny Afternoon" or "I'm Not Like Everybody Else"; in fact, you'd probably trade all 18 of these songs for one of those. The Arista years can't match the nadir that was Preservation Acts 1&2, but neither do they approach the apex of Arthur or Something Else or Village Green. Anyone who tells you otherwise obviously lacks refinement, tends toward the superficial, and cannot be trusted. That much is certain. (Keven McAlester)

Little Feat: Waiting for Lowell

Many rock historians (a rather portentous title for people who write about their favorite bands for a living, but what can you do?) tend to gravitate toward narrative extremes. Either the chronicle of a performer is a tale of unabashed triumph over a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, or it's a tragedy in which the subject's talent (and often the subject himself) withers and dies in the face of ignorance, misunderstanding, disloyalty, greed, substance abuse and/or the misalignment of the planets. But, Behind the Music to the contrary, the lives and careers of musicians, like the lives and careers of the rest of us, are seldom so easily explained--and Little Feat, the largely forgotten but once inspired major-label cult act celebrated in Hotcakes & Outtakes, a four-CD set just issued on the Warner Archives/Rhino imprint, is an apt example.

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Michael Corcoran
Keven Mcalester
Michael Roberts
Contact: Michael Roberts
Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky