Can you tell the Kinks apart in the picture on the cover of their new album? No, of course. Except for Ray, they all look the same these days. Faceless. Their music has also been sounding that way lately. Still, they're a heap better than most other groups you could ever name.
Musically, the Kinks' roots in the British Music Hall tradition really show up strongly on Muswell Hillbillies. At least five songs could be described as this type, and when the country-ish material is added, the two styles account for almost the whole LP. Only one song, "Skin And Bone," is straightforward electric rock and roll. Most of the music-hall style songs come over pretty well, even if the genre is minor compared to things the Kinks have done in the past. "Have A Cuppa Tea" is reminiscent of previous Kinks quaintness, and "Alcohol" is particularly delightful — sort of a followup to Ray Davies' Maurice Chevalier tribute "Just Friends" on Percy.
The country stuff is another matter. A portion of it is fine, but some of the songs are so positively uninspired and unenergetic it drives me up the wall. Such as things like the Kinks nasally whining "I'm a Muswell hillbilly boy, But my heart lies in old West Virginia" or Ray singing the saga of "Holloway Jail," a total doggerel of a song which would have been more at home on some forgotten Marty Robbins album ten years ago. The Kinks who roared out of Muswell Hill in 1964 with "Long Tall Sally," "You Do Something To Me," and (finally) "You Really Got Me" weren't any shuffling hillbillies, they were grade-A urban brats: and they later matured in a way encompassing broadened scope and sensibilities that few rock bands have ever matched. And that's why it's such a drag to hear the routine 1971 country slide guitar rot turning up on a Kinks album, even if only in a couple spots.
The most disturbing matter of all concerns a very serious recent Kinks problem that has turned up once again here on Muswell Hillbillies: production. Ever since the Kinks started handling their own production on Village Green, it's been a detracting factor from time to time, and here it seems to have reached its ultimate dilemma. For some inexplicable reason, Ray Davies one of the finest singers of rock and roll that has ever lived — persists in burying his vocals throughout the album. While in several respects Muswell Hillbillies represents an uncertain crossroads for the Kinks' recording career, the fact of Ray Davies' voice being back in the background where one can't hear it properly somehow seems most symbolic (and perplexing) of all.
Overall, Muswell Hillbillies is a weird tangent for a group that've always been at their best when rocking their asses off — whether "All Day And All Of The Night" or "Victoria" — but the album succeeds, where it does, largely on its combination of cynicism, tenderness, and wit that the Kinks have long been known for.
As must be obvious by now to anyone who has ever encountered a true-blue rabid Kinks fan, each new Kinks album is an Officially Sanctioned major event, even in these post-Village Green Preservation Society/ Arthur days. From an objective historical basis, there's a valid case for such devotion: the Kinks now have to their credit around 16 albums, and many Kinks fans would tell you that all but three or four of them are excellent. In fact, there are some crazed loons who would go so far as to claim that the Kinks are none other than the greatest rock and roll band of all time. The crazed loon writing this review couldn't agree more!