Friday, August 11, 2023

JEM Records Celebrates Ray Davies

An annual occurrence I always look forward to is the release of the latest installment in the JEM Records Celebrates series. Beginning in 2020 with a tribute to John Lennon, JEM Records Celebrates follows an unbeatable recipe: give one of the most talented label rosters in today's music world free reign to create new, unique versions of some of the greatest songs ever written. As you would expect, the initial installments in this series have been extraordinary. If I'm generally lukewarm about tribute albums, it's because they're rarely done this well. Having already tackled the songs of Lennon, Brian Wilson, and Pete Townshend, JEM's bands and artists now have a go at the legendary Ray Davies. This is the installment I've been waiting for since JEM first launched the series. Ray Davies as a songwriter is surpassed by no one in the rock era. And outside of the Beatles and Ramones, I can't think of a band that's been more influential than The Kinks on the sort of music I write about. Power pop, garage rock, indie pop, and even punk rock can all be traced back in some way to The Kinks. It's certainly safe to say that every act on the JEM roster has more than a little Kinks in its musical DNA. The stakes were so high for JEM Records Celebrates Ray Davies to be great. And let me tell you: it absolutely is

I'll be honest. Even if I really like a tribute album, I usually just give it a few listens, write up some carefully-considered praise, and then forget about it forever. But it has been different with JEM Records Celebrates Ray Davies. This release has been in my car's CD player for a few weeks, and I just can't stop listening to it! There's just something about Davies' songs that translate well to cover versions (think of all the Kinks covers that have become classics in their own right). And another thing I've noticed from listening to this album is that Davies' songs don't age. A lot of these songs are nearly 60 years old, yet they sound like they could have been written yesterday. If you didn't know any better, you might think they were from these artists' own catalogs. That's a testament to both the staying power of the material and the talents of the bands who play on this record. 

Most of the songs on JEM Records Celebrates Ray Davies are culled from The Kinks' mid-to-late '60s heyday — including five sides from the band's amazing run of 1964-65 singles and three selections from 1968's classic album The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. Kicking off the album, The Midnight Callers remake the 1983 top ten smash "Come Dancing" in their signature glam rock/power pop style. I love how they take this quintessentially British song steeped in '50s nostalgia and transform it into something that feels fresh and contemporary. And while I'm a big Kinks fan, I must admit I hadn't given "Come Dancing" a thought in years. Good on The Midnight Callers for reminding me what an incredible song this is. Elsewhere, Nick Piunti & The Complicated Men turn the proto power pop number "Till the End of the Day" into a proper power pop number and even mash it up with "All Day and All of the Night." The Anderson Council's Brit-pop-ish take on "Do You Remember Walter" is probably my favorite track on the album, while The Airport 77s give "Picture Book" a wonderfully quirky new wave makeover. The Gold Needles are faithful to the whimsical spirit of "Village Green Preservation Society" while making the song their own in the most delightful way. Johnathan Pushkar splendidly reimagines "David Watts" as a bubbly pop earworm very much in line with his original material. The Grip Weeds show their versatility with a beautifully executed psych-pop re-working of "See My Friends" and a punchy garage rock rendition of "Where Have All the Good Times Gone." Well-positioned as the closing track (because no other song here could possibly follow it), Lisa Mychols & Super 8's version of the 1968 single "Days" stuns with breathtakingly beautiful vocals and melodies. It feels blasphemous to say I like it better than the original, but I'll say it anyway. I would definitely buy a full album of Lisa Mychols & Super 8 doing covers. Heck, I'd buy a full album of Lisa Mychols & Super 8 singing the phone book! "Days" is a show-stealer. Did anyone else notice that this album is bookended by songs Davies wrote out of love for his sisters?  

The easy complaint about JEM Records Celebrates Ray Davies would be that it's missing a lot of Kinks classics. But having listened to this album dozens of times, I can't think of any song I would want to omit. This would have needed to have been a triple album to satisfy everyone, and who's got time for that? This is a superbly realized tribute to one of the greatest storytellers and pop craftsmen to ever pick up a guitar. It presents some of his songs in a very new light, and even the more straight-forward versions give me a deeper appreciation for the greatness of this material. Of course this album has me excited to listen to my Kinks records again. But it also has me pumped to dig deeper into some of the JEM bands I haven't fully explored (especially The Anderson Council and The Cynz). If you love The Kinks, this album is a must-purchase. And come on: who doesn't love The Kinks?


Cobber67 said...

I loved last year's Townshend album, and I expect this to be similarly great.

Scott said...

I've been listening to this nonstop all weekend long.

Bob B said...

Nice review. The tune Do You Remember Walter is the probably the best track - so very well done!