Advantages Fantastic lyrics, great songs
Disadvantages A bit lacking in obvious 'hits'
|Quality and consistency of tracks|
|Cover / Inlay Design and Content|
|Value for Money|
Before I start the review proper, a confession: in terms of music from the 60s my heart will ALWAYS belong to the Beatles. Don’t get me wrong; I love the Stones for their verve and flair, and I think that the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is the greatest album ever made. But in terms of my desert island discs, well, it’d be John, Paul, Ringo and George all the way. I was introduced to them as a small child and I’ve loved them ever since. As I’ve aged, I’ve liked different facets of their music and I’ve changed my opinion about their songs (Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds just annoys me now, I find Let It Be trite and, unlike Mr McCartney, I quite like the Phil Spector wall of sound effect on The Long and Winding Road). So perhaps, in light of my undying affection for the mop tops, it may say a huge amount for just how unbelievably talented a songwriter Ray Davies is that I think one of his little-known classics knocks everything that the Beatles and every other band from the era did into a cocked hat. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is about the album; not just one song.
First things first, if you buy The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society hoping for pop ‘n’ rock classics like You Really Got Me, All Day And All of the Night or even Waterloo Sunset, you’re going to be disappointed and this album will probably leave you cold. It was one of the Kinks’ later works and, I think, the last one recorded before members of the band began to shift, rearrange and occasionally leave. The intent is less to storm the charts and more to present a paean to all that is English, eccentric and wonderful. Frankly, it’s as well that it succeeded at the latter because it failed spectacularly at the former; selling a mere 100,000 copies and failing to chart. Unusually for an album, I struggle to highlight tracks that I think would work well as singles and I’m not sure which were released as such. This really is a concept album and needs to be viewed as a complete whole, rather than a collection of songs. Anyway, it may seem odd that I love this album so much, given that a) it is a tribute to England and Englishness and b) I will always regard myself as Irish. In honesty, I can’t claim that I chose this based on my discerning tastes, no, what happened is that I used to frequent a record shop in Belfast called Hector’s House and the nice beardy man that ran the place one day said ‘you know what’s good in music. Listen to this’ and thrust the CD into my hands. This story would be perfect if I had then run home to listen to it, seen the light and never listened to any dross again. Sadly, though, I initially wasn’t overly keen and it took a good few years of paying actual money to see the likes of the disaster that were Cast before I understood the point of this album.
The album opens with the titular track and if it doesn’t have you hooked from the get-go, there’s something wrong with your ears. It’s a gentle, poppy song with a constant electric organ background that’s carried along by some nicely jangly guitars and up-tempo drums. The stand out bit for me, though, is the vocal harmonies from Ray and Dave which must somehow work in inverse proportion to how much they hated each other. It’s worth looking up a live version of this song on YouTube (or I’ll put a link on the end) as to achieve that level of harmony when singing live is a rare thing these days. Lyrically, this is one of the cleverest songs ever written and it’s hard to have anything but the greatest affection for a man who rhymes ‘vernacular’ and ‘Dracula’. It manages a rare feat of celebrating all that is quaint and a bit twee without making it sound ridiculous or naff.
Things get a bit rockier with Do You Remember Walter? which features stronger electric guitars, driving drums and a constant piano. This isn’t one of my favourites as I find the piano irritating but essentially it’s a lament for how people (and life in general) change and become less appealing. Thankfully, those Davies harmonies make a return on Picture Book and the bass comes to the fore, making for a funkier, bluesier sound albeit one which is tempered with quite a lot of falsetto backing vocals. The slightly harder edge also comes through in Johnny Thunder where Ray Davies seems to juxtapose a slight cod-American accent with some very English refrains. Lyrically, these songs are nothing special and could be viewed as a throwaway tracks, but I rather like them, especially as they serve as a useful intro for…
Last of the Steam-Powered Trains which makes the most of the nasal, hard-edged quality that Ray Davies’ voice sometimes has. This is a good, old-fashioned blues song that’s kept ticking over by a mellow bass sound and a sharp harmonica. For anyone with even the vaguest musical knowledge the comparisons between this and Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightnin’ will be immediately obvious and it’s amazing that the great man didn’t sue for a songwriting credit. Perhaps he appreciated that the number was more than a little self-deprecating and made much of the debt that 60s British artists owed to the music of America’s Deep South.
Big Sky has a spoken narrative and a picked guitar sound that always reminds me of the Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake. This is a gentle and pleasant song that offers a counterpoint to the preceding track but it isn’t one that I’d instantly click onto repeat. It does set the mood for Sitting by the Riverside which has the kind of plinky-plonky piano and fairground Wurlitzer sound that makes it reminiscent of the British seaside. Davies’ softer, quintessentially English, vocals compliment this sound well.
Animal Farm is a return to the pop sound of earlier and continues the softer vocal sound, with occasional lapses into a slightly harder sound. In case any would-be listeners are confused, it yearns for a return to a simple, rural life, rather than plotting to overthrow a totalitarian regime.
Musically, there’s something of an about turn with Village Green as it has a more instantly recognisable ‘Kinks’ feel and the strings and harpsichord give it an old-fashioned air. This suits the tone of the song and its consistent refrain of ‘I miss the village green’. Anyone who loved Dedicated Follower of Fashion will instantly recognise the timbre of Davies’ voice in this stand-out track. To my mind, this might have been better as an album finale because, as much as I like Starstruck and appreciate its poppy vocals, strings and harmonies, it just seems odd and out of place when following Village Green.
Mind you, as odd songs go, you’ll go a long way to beat Phenomenal Cat. Personally, I think it fits as it finds a place in the history of quirky, mad little writings about anthropomorphic animals that the British are so well known for. Not one to listen to if you’ve just dropped a shedload of acid, though: you’ll be convinced that the strange vocal halfway through is your cat talking to you.
All of My Friends Were There is probably the only track on the album that I really don’t like as it walks the line of chirpy, cockney Britishness and falls down on the wrong side. It’s horribly reminiscent of Chas and Dave but without any of their self-awareness or humour. Uncharacteristically for the Kinks, it’s a plodding song that is never rescued by the injection of a good tune. Thankfully, it’s pretty short and soon leads into Wicked Annabella; a much grittier, dirtier sounding effort that has drums and electric guitar stomped all over it. To me, this sounds like a cleverer Who song and I like its slightly sinister, knowing overtones. That said, it’s another song that feels out of place as it’s radically different from its neighbours and seems a complete aberration compared to Monica. The latter features a lilting, almost calypso rhythm and refrain that I’m not quite sure works within the confines of the album although the effect is somewhat evened out by Davies’ softer vocals.
Finally, the album is rounded off by People Take Pictures of Each Other with Davies singing in the higher part of his register and echoing sentiments expressed elsewhere in the album. It’s a jaunty and perfectly passable pop song but I feel that it lacks the style and substance needed to close an album such as this.
It’s unfortunate that this is an album that rather got lost at the time but, arguably, it was professional suicide to release it when Led Zeppelin, Beggars Banquet , The White Album, Electric Ladyland and others were stomping all over the top 40 with big boots on. Even the rockier elements of The Village Green Preservation Society just can’t hope to compete and suffer by comparison because their inspiration lies in erudition rather than mass appeal. However, the album has never quite gone away and has enjoyed something of a critical and popular renaissance as people come to realise what sheer delight can be had in listening to how Ray Davies manipulates and plays with the English language, especially as it’s almost always backed up with catchy and listenable pop tunes. Taken as a whole, the album easily absorbs the occasional lacklustre song and succeeds in its aims: to celebrate and pay homage to all that is quintessentially English.
The studio version of The Village Green Preservation Society. If you only listen to one song today, make it this:
The live version, well worth a listen if only for the amazing harmonies:
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Release Date: 2001-09-17, Audio CD, Castle
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Release Date: 2006-11-20, Audio CD, Sanctuary
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