Ray Davies’ “Working Man’s Café”

Feb 25, 2008 10:25am

Even as a younger man leading the Kinks, Ray Davies was always a literate curmudgeon discussing society’s conventions.  His songs have often been filled with detailed observations peppered with cynicism and venom, but not completely without hope.  So, it comes as no surprise that at 63, he’s still chugging and thriving as a songwriter at a point in his career when he could be just fading creatively like so many of his peers have.  But Davies has always been older than his years.  Mick Jagger for instance has always been writing songs about trying to pick up women with his cool swagger.  As he gets older, that may get increasingly awkward in a society which puts way too much emphasis on age.  Davies will never outgrow his original persona.  The grumpy, socially aware hero for the underdog will always age more gracefully than the ladies’ man.  Compare the greatness of Davies’ 2005 solo debut “Other People’s Lives” with the stale, ham-fisted songs on “A Bigger Bang” and this is obvious.  The latter did have some decent moments here and there, but ultimately it probably didn’t win them any new fans.  The Ray Davies album on the other hand could be used by a casual listener as a gateway to discovering the Kinks’ back-catalogue.  Now, Davies has returned with “Working Man’s Café.”  Always a commentator on notions of economic class struggles, such a title fits him perfectly.  Listening to Davies’ work as songwriter and you wonder how much of an influence he was on later outspoken writers like Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer and Billy Bragg.  This album lacks the exact sharpness of “Other People’s Lives” and nothing on here is as memorable as the (perhaps fatal) kiss off on that album’s “All She Wrote,” but it’s still excellent and well worth a listen.  Davies approaches these songs as if they are little essays or short stories.  Never one to hang on lyrical convention, his keen wit has always made his songs stand out.  Right off the bat he gives us “Vietnam Cowboys,” a lament on globalization and outsourcing where he sings “Mass production in Saigon / While auto workers get laid off in Cleveland. / Hot Jacuzzi in Taiwan with empty factories in Birmingham.”  He’s never been one to be afraid to start political discourse.  He continues by saying, “Wake up in the White House, / Zip up your pants and get it together. / Take a look at your overseas neighbor. / Look at their strange behavior.”  Davies has spent many of his recent years in America.  You might remember a few years back in New Orleans he got mugged and shot.  Judging from the determination in his songwriting since then, it was obviously a life-changing event.  He discusses America a lot because that’s where he is.  (This album, for instance, was recorded in Tennessee.) “You’re Asking Me” is a raging slice of Kinks-ian rock.  There’s an underlying wry accusatory tone in his voice as he urges someone asking his opinion to not take his “advice.”  It’s pretty funny actually, and a nice possible hit.  The title track is more than just a story about trying to find an affordable place to eat in the mall. It’s bigger than that.  It’s really an examination about how we embrace flashy fads thus pushing the “working man” out of the equation.  It’s about how we have let the chains kill what were once mom-and-pop operations, run by hard-working people doing what they could to get by.  Nostalgia is indeed a constant theme on this record. “Morphine Song” is catchy, but it should be named after its hook-line of “Listen to my heartbeat.” On “In a Moment” Davies sings about how much he loves the mood of daybreak.  His descriptions are as rich as ever here.  “Peace in Our Time” finds a couple trying to pick up the pieces after a break-up or argument.  It’s a song about changing relationship dynamics.  It builds with Davies almost yelling at the top range of his voice at one point.  The message is that we all deserve peace however we can find it in our lives.  Sometimes things need rearranging, but that’s the ultimate goal.  “No One Listens” is another standout with Davies discussing his frustrations with governments and other institutions loaded with red tape.  It’s about how it is difficult for the every-day citizen to get anything done because no one who has power will listen to him.  It’s blunt but powerful.  “Imaginary Man” would also make a nice, low-key single with Davies questioning reality.  Once again, the lyrical descriptions are an important part of the equation.  “One More Time” is a wistful piece about “the old-country” which also hints at a broken relationship, whereas “Voodoo Walk” is an insomniac’s ode to mysticism.  The latter has a great old, dirty blues vibe. In the agnostic “Hymn for the New Age,” Davies says he doesn’t believe in the traditional image of God, but he still “needs something to look up to.” Adding, “I believe I wanna pray but I don’t know what to.”  The New Orleans imagery in “The Real World” is a nice touch.  Even after the mugging incident, Davies has viewed the city quite fondly.  The title refers to people escaping reality.  Hard times make people long for escapism.  Davies sings “One day you’ll wake up and you will feel ‘I am alive this is real.’”  Perhaps this is the thesis of the album.  Davies is an old-fashioned man looking for a human touch in an increasingly soulless word.  We need not to rely so much on technology and reconnect in human way with each other once again.  Maybe we can find peace if we can all relocate the “Working Man’s Café.”  As always, Ray Davies has given the world something big to contemplate.

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