Most helpful positive review
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Should Have More Credit
on 31 January 2014
Muswell Hillbillies came out in 1971, right after the massive international hit Lola and the somewhat less of a hit Apeman, so probably anything would have paled in comparison. RCA signed The Kinks as a singles band, and this was the first concept album they issued for the label. "20th Century Man" was the single from the album and explored once again songwriter Ray Davies' disaffection from modern times ("I'm a twentieth century man, but I don't want to be here.") The songs are mainly about the People in Grey who know what's best for everyone who were moving people out of their quaint houses into council houses, giving them what they "need." ("Here Come the People in Grey.") I remember Ray in an interview at the time talking about his Aunt Rose who was arthritic being moved out of her lovely old house and into a council flat where the sinks were at a height that she could hardly raise her arms high enough to reach. The concert favorites "Alcohol," "Acute Schoziphrenia Paranoia Blues," and "Skin and Bones" were part of The Kinks' repretoire for several years. "Have a Cuppa Tea" ("Granny's always ravin' and rantin', and she's always puffin' and pantin', and she's always screamin' and shoutin,' and she's always brewing up tea.") is a lugubrious riot of music which sounds like everyone is having a great time. The alternate version included on the second CD is much less enjoyable and more subdued. "Oklahoma USA" is a rumination about a girl walking to her drab job dreaming about the movies, a theme which Ray would return to far more effectively in "Celluloid Heroes" the next year. In "Holloway Jail," the narrator is visiting his beloved in that notorious London facility who was led into a life of crime by "a spiv named Frankie Shine." the girl chorus that would be so prominent in the "Preservation" albums of 1973-75 makes its first appearance here as does the Mike Cotton Sound, a sax, trumpet, trombone trio who would be featured on the next three albums as well. Like "Motorway," as song that would appear the next year complaining about life on the road, the enthusiastic delivery and beat of "Muswell Hillbillies" at the end says that after all that, Ray is perfectly happy to be where he is (Muswell Hill was where Ray and Dave grew up) (essentially a sequel to 1967's "This Is Where I Belong").
There are four songs on the extras CD that were routined for the album but not used. Personally, I don't think they add much to the story. Two of the albums songs, "20th Century Man" and "Muswell Hillbillies," are included there as remixed in 1976; those mixes were included on the LP verson of 1976's "The Kinks Greatest Hits," but are not included on the expanded CD version. Alternative versions of the album's songs are included as well.
The pictures are significant. The front cover picture was taken inside the Archway Tavern (which would be the scene of an IRA bombing in a few years), and the people in it other than the band are locals obviously looking askance at the long-haired freaky people. The gatefold picture inside was the band in front of a construction fence that was hiding a bombed out building left over from World War II (26 years fter the war there were still unrepaired places). The extra pics from that same shoot included in the package make it look like it was cold that day. Dave (especially) and John Gosling look like they were freezing.
The music is mostly basic rock. Sonically, most of the instruments are clustered in the center, which, for me, means the guitars tend to stumble over each other. Dave premiers his slide guitar here and uses it to great effect, but some of the parts are hard to hear. The two 1976 remixes have much better stereo, and the guitar parts are much easier to appreciate. while Dave does not contribute a song, his guitar work in all over this album and nicely carries Ray's vocals along. It's the lack of separation that keeps me from giving the album 5 Stars
This is one of the best of the Kinks' later albums. Ray gets a little heavy-handed in the social commentary and the sound is somewhat muddy, but it hangs together much better than his later concept albums. Dave's guitar and John Dalton's bass anchor the sound and create an overall very satifying listening experience. If you want to learn about the Davies' brothers growing up, this is the album to get.