Review Summary: And now for something completely different by the Kinks...
Muswell Hillbillies is a very bittersweet album for me. The bitterness arises from the fact that it’s the end of an era. It all started in around ’67 with the release of Something Else by the Kinks (or with ‘66’s Face to Face if you’re a huge Kinks fans), and for about a half decade, Ray Davies could do no wrong. From Village Greens to Waterloo Sunsets, to encounters with Transvestites, Davies penned some of the wittiest, sharpest lyrics and some of the most listenable, catchy melodies (there was also some other group of four Liverpool chaps that could try and lay claim to this, but this isn’t their review, now is it?). The sweet part of the bittersweet is that Muswell Hillbillies is a great album, and ranks up there with The Kinks’ best output.
The fun starts with the name of the album. Muswell Hill is the area of London where the Davies boys (Ray and Dave) grew up. If you were drawing parallels to The Beverly Hillbillies, then you must be pretty damn sharp, aren’t you?
Muswell Hillbillies has a very distinct sound, different from the rest out The Kinks’ discography. The easiest way to describe it is that everything is “old-timey”. This boils down to a pastiche of rock, country, blues, barroom, music hall, jazz, and ragtime that boils down to a melting pot of American influenced music. Of course, little touches were made to ensure the old-timeyness of it all, ranging from using outdated machines to produce the album, ensuring an older sound, to the fact Davies is rumored to have sung a song off the album with a cigar in his mouth. The effect is that a whole bunch of the songs sound like they should be coming out of one of those big, old radios, the kind people would gather about to hear about Little Orphan Annie and the boys overseas in Europe.
With all this talk of changing the style and sound to be more old-timey American, surely this must change the lyrics too, you are surely saying now. That is because you’re stupid and/or wrong. Ray Davies is a Brit first, and the lyrics deliver, containing that British cynicism and satirical wit that Davies was famous for. Through it all are his general ideas involving individual liberties (surprisingly, he thinks they’re good), and the effect of society on people. Tales of sad people going through their day to day lives are still prevalent, the kinds of people made by Tom Waits (yeah, musically different, but this is lyrics talk here). Davies makes people, damning them to be interesting, whether it’s being in the throes of vice, paranoia, or modern culture in general.
The first cut off the album is very adeptly placed, due to its ability to help people transition into the general feel of Muswell Hillbillies. “20th Century Man” is, by this album’s standards, a very direct hard rocker. It gallops along with slide guitars and Hammond organs and Davies doing his trademark shtick: disliking the modern era. Really, Davies’ writing can be best summed up by the lyrics from this song: “I’m a twentieth century man but I don’t wanna be here”. All the familiar bogeymen are dealt with: government, technology, the works. My god though, what a way to kick the album off. Davies’ vocals are primo here, really. The way he can go from quiet melody to just kicking up the volume and letting it all go is astounding. A superb song on the whole.
Dixie N’Orleans horns drive “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues” the next song on the album. If you could glean it from the title, it deals with paranoia, but not in that deep, emotional plowing of the soul way, but the more humorous approach. What other songs contain lyrics like “Well the milkman's a spy, and the grocer keeps on following me / and the woman next door's an undercover for the K.G.B.”? Genius, I tell you.
The horns come back on “Alcohol”, probably the weirdest track on the album. It has this strong gypsy like eastern European flair and starts off with the funeral dirge on horns, a sure sign that this isn’t quite as lighthearted as “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues”. It’s the lament of a man wrecked by women and alcohol. Tee hee.
I pair two songs together on the album in particular: “Complicated Life” and “Have a Cuppa Tea” due to the insane levels of catchiness they both have. “Complicated Life” is very country sounding, and contains very memorable moments, such as when, over “na ni na”s, Ray shouts out “Life is overrated. Life is complicated!” The real evil is “Have a Cuppa Tea, with a chorus that’s a level of infectious that most diseases only dream about. It’s a stomp-a-long number, affectionately nipping at Ray’s grandma. There are other layers to the lyrics, but the point is that “Have a Cuppa Tea” is an earworm of the first degree, and you have been warned. It ruins important points in your life, take it from me.
Sandwiched between these two is “Here Come the People in Grey” (or gray, depending on which side of the pond you’re on), which seems like the anthem of the hapless Arthur Dent. Capping off the album (and the song name dropping portion of the review) are “Oklahoma USA” and “Holloway Jail”, honest to god American country ballads, only separated by Davies pronunciation.
So is it good? In a word, yes. In a few words, an emphatic yes. The closest sounding thing is probably The Kinks are The Village Green Preservation Society and saying something is similar to that is very high accolades in circles of Kinks fans. But it’s insulting to both albums to say they sound too similar to one another. Each one carves out its own niche in Kinks’ history, and the rating for Muswell Hillbillies reflects this. It’s not the best album to start out with (that’s Something Else by the Kinks, Village Green, or Arthur) nor is it the best (again, Village Green or Arthur), but it’s a "you must listen to it eventually", and "coming up close in third" in the latter. If you enjoy satire, black humor, beautiful vocal harmonies, or catchy melodies, then you might be a Muswell Hillbilly.