As Kinks records go, Low Budget wins the award for cheesiest packaging hands down, greatest-hits sets included. The cover photo of the group's logo and the album's title stenciled on a grimy sidewalk between a pair of high-heeled feet would do only a bargain bin proud. No pictures of the band, no credits, no song titles — and that shrink-wrap sticker proclaiming three "new Kinks classics" is at best an exercise in the power of positive thinking.
For all its obvious faults, though, the cover is entirely appropriate to the LP's subject matter. If last year's sporadically memorable Misfits was another chapter in the Kinks' continuing lyrical study of round human pegs struggling to fit into square social holes, then Low Budget is Ray Davies' consideration of how round and square pegs alike plan to deal with the gas crisis, inflation and the decline of the Western economy in general. From the sidelines, Davies acknowledges that his Everyman is beset by catastrophes not of his own making ("Pressure") and then chastises the poor guy for not being optimistic enough ("Attitude").
Since some of the Kinks have taken up temporary residence in New York City, it's a fair guess that Davies has suffered a disillusion or two of his own. The American vision of Utopia is no more realistic than the post-Victorian version in Arthur's "Shangri-La," and Low Budget may be the group's public call to conscience, not just a chance to be witty at the dollar's expense.
Lyrically, Davies can be convincing as well as clever. He scores a direct hit on American foreign policy with the sardonic "Catch Me Now I'm Falling" and applies bitter truths to the cut-rate rhymes of "Low Budget" ("Even my trousers are giving me a pain/They were reduced in a sale so I shouldn't complain"). His muse takes a short vacation for "Attitude," which is humorlessly accusatory almost to the point of being reactionary ("You talk like a docker but you act like a queer"). "A Gallon of Gas" is no great poetic achievement, but its slow, bluesy arrangement — meant, no doubt, to re-create the effect of a snail's pace gas line — heightens the good-natured irony of a situation in which drugs are easier to come by than gasoline.
There is, however, no energy crisis on Low Budget, the hardest rocking Kinks record in recent memory. Longtime drummer Mick Avory really puts-the boot to the disco-driven "(Wish I Could Fly like) Superman," while former Argent bassist Jim Rodford provides more bottom than the band's ever had. And guitarist Dave Davies threatens to upstage his famous brother at every turn, peeling off leads and riffs with spirit and facility. Though the pace starts to drag halfway through side two in the didactic "Little Bit of Emotion" and the blandly reflective "Moving Pictures," the Kinks haven't mounted this kind of rock & roll attack since Lola. Low Budget may not be the best of their twenty-odd albums released in America, but it's not bad either.