It's 11 a.m. Friday morning, and Ray Davies sounds like death warmed over. "I'm getting over bronchitis," he explains with a pained cough. "It's a bug that's going around in England, and I've brought it to America. How are things with you?"
Eleven hours later, he'll apologize again for his voice, this time from the stage of Manhattan's tiny Jane Street Theater, where he's closing out a three-night stand of sold-out concerts billed as "Ray Davies and Friends." The friends in question are a rag-tag team of N.Y. area musicians whose ranks include lauded indie-rock trio Yo La Tengo. The set list is the stuff of Kinkophile dreams, in which warhorses like "Lola" are bypassed in favor of rare nuggets like "I Need You," unavoidables like "You Really Got Me" are attacked like fresh meat and more than half the songs are brand spanking new.
And bronchitis be damned, Davies sounds and looks to be having the time of his life. You can see it in the huge grin that splits his face while watching Yo La's Ira Kaplan splash squeals of tortured lead guitar against the driving, hypnotic rhythm of his best new song, "The Morning After." And you can hear it in the way he sings the 1968 Village Green Preservation Society gem "Animal Farm" as though discovering its buoyant charm for the first time (which isn't far from the truth -- it was one of the rarely or never performed Kinks songs Yo La Tengo insisted he give a whack at).
"'Animal Farm' was a revelation to me -- I really enjoyed doing it," enthuses Davies. "And it's wonderful. They know all the inflections on things like 'I Need You' -- they knew it from the record, which was quite endearing in a way, because whenever we did stuff with the Kinks, we tried to get away from the record. [This is] very loyal to the sound of the record."
Davies says he first saw Yo La Tengo five years ago, but he met Kaplan way back around 1979. "I think he used to write for New York Rocker years ago, and when Low Budget came out, he did an interview with me. Did a pretty good piece". The rest of Davies' friends for the stand included guitarist Pete Mathison, who accompanied him on his long-running X-Ray "Storyteller" tour, techno drummer Phil Hernandez and guitarist/bassist Chris Maxwell (collectively known as the Elegant Two), guitarist John Addy and drummer Ira Elliot. "I just found him on the street," Davies explains with a chuckle.
The purpose of the three shows, which Davies described as an "experiment," was to test-drive material for a solo album, which he hopes to have out sometime next year. "I'm just trying to put everything in the pot," he explains, noting that they only had three days to rehearse together during which Yo La Tengo also had to practice for a gig at Kaplan's brother's wedding over the weekend. Davies says that there are currently no plans to do further shows together, but allows that, "schedules permitting, it would be nice to try it again on other occasions." He's also intrigued by the notion of recording with Yo La Tengo. "I'd like to," he says. "Why I like this process, particularly with varying musicians, is each person, even though they're playing the same song, they bring something of their own to it. It makes me see the song in another perspective."
In addition to the Kinks-worthy rocker "The Morning After," the new songs included "The Deal," "Next Door Neighbor," "Vietnam Cowboys," "Empty Room," "Otis Riffs," "My Diary," "Thanksgiving Day" and "Stand Up Comic." Through the constant changing of musicians onstage allowed for an eclectic mix of styles, many of the new songs were reminiscent of what Davies calls "French bar music." "I'm not saying its going to be a lounge record," he says wryly, "but I am writing a song called 'The Las Vegas Symphony.'"
For all the musical experimentation, however, the new material finds Davies still probing many of the familiar themes that have marked his writing for the last three-and-a-half decades. "Otis Riffs" evokes the nostalgia of "Come Dancing," while "The Deal," "Next Door Neighbor" and "My Diary" are all classic Davies character sketches, alternately sardonic and empathetic. And in "Stand Up Comic," delivered with Vaudevillian pizzazz reminiscent of Mr. Flash from the Kinks' Preservation rock opera, Davies revisits the decline and fall of the British Empire. This time around, however, there's no wistful longing for village greens, afternoon tea and the glory days of Victoria. The song's scruple-less title character, he explains, represents the current low-brow mentality pervading English media and the widespread "cheapening of a culture." Whereas in 1972's "Twentieth Century Man," Davies sang, "You can keep all your smart modern writers/Give me William Shakespeare," today's Shakespeare is the schmoozer of the week, and any two-bit comedian with a knack for fart jokes can become a sensation.
"The annoying thing about the English," he quips, "is we are what we've become, and we hate ourselves for it.
"This whole record is going to be about transients," Davies continues. "I'm very passionate about what's happened to England, but I'll never fit in anywhere. I don't feel accepted in my homeland, and I don't feel like I want to accept my homeland anymore."