It would be far too easy to give David Gilmour and Ray Davies a pass, just out of gratitude for having them back in the fold. In the end though, we’re buying the CDs for now and for later, so we have to look at their long-term rewards and not just the ephemeral sigh of relief that, in some way, the Floyd and The Kinks have retuned to us.
It’s not as hard-nosed as all that though. Both CDs offer up what we love most about both performers – Gilmour’s impossibly perfect guitar work and choirboy voice, Davies sometimes acerbic, caustic but also wistfully sentimental lyrics. Both CDs carefully manage the minefield of trying to sound modern without trying to sound desperately “contemporary”.
On An Island is, in many ways, more Floyd-like than either of Gilmour’s outings as band leader, A Momentary Lapse Of Reason and The Division Bell. That sense of aggression we’ve come to associate with the band really didn’t set in until the mid 1970s, post-Dark Side. Previous records show a tendency toward the long, languid chill out endemic of the psychedelic era. So it goes that David Gilmour’s first recording in more than a decade contains material that could have wound up on Meddle or perhaps A Saucerful Of Secrets. The psych of the opening instrumental “Castellorizon”, another Floyd trademark, works on levels of minimalist sound collage just before Gilmour’s pristine guitar breaks in. The harmonies on the title track are not by Waters and Wright, but by (David) Crosby and (Graham) Nash, and sound uncannily apt and mysteriously Dark Side-like.
What’s missing though is at least one punchy, up-tempo track. There’s no “One Slip” or “Take It Back” here. The requisite epic tune doesn’t have the bombast of “High Hopes” or “On The Turning Away”, but surprisingly, I find said epic “A Pocketful Of Stones” to be the most engaging of the set. Starting with low tones that mirror Lapse’s “Signs Of Life”, the emphasis recedes from charge to reflection, as the music becomes somewhat an adagio. I found myself repeating this track over and over, caught up by the mood, something many of the songs here did not.
This is not to say that On An Island isn’t worth your time. On the contrary, if you’re a fan you probably already own it. The digibook it is housed in is kind of sweet all on its own. You will enjoy it immensely, but likely will not revisit it often. This is often bluesy and sometimes romantic, the combination of Gilmour’s playing inclinations and Polly Samson’s lyrics, but it is definitely sedate, mood-setting song work. I’m glad David’s back, and the work here is great, but I cannot make light of my mixed feelings for it.
Meanwhile, Ray Davies has been workshopping with the New York underground, after the end of his “20th Century Storyteller” tour, setting up stages with the likes of the venerable alt.rockers Yo La Tengo, fixing up the tunes that would first appear as a string of e.p.s throughout 2004 and culminating in this year’s Other People’s Lives. The liner notes of the CD state in no uncertain terms that these are bits of fiction, not autobiographical. But then, that’s exactly what Davies inferred about X-Ray, his autobiography, so one is left to speculate the sincerity of such remarks. What is not in doubt is his wit, still focused with laser sharpness, still filled with the social commentary that made The Kinks a step above most of the Brit Invasion bands.
Songs like “After The Fall”, “Creatures Of Little Faith” and “Stand-Up Comic” have clearly defined characters – the person who wakes up after another emotional disaster and decides to move on and let the past go, the man who gets caught in his indiscretions and realizes all too late what he has lost, the performer who has to slink into the worst of himself to entertain the unmoved audience. All these characters are apart from Davies, as the album title indicates, and yet all are informed by his life and ring true. As the actor in the piece, he brings a lot to these presumed creations, as any good actor should, and that makes them come alive.
It doesn’t hurt that Davies is backed by a lean and mean rock and roll ensemble, less interested in wedging into the Billboard Top Ten than they are brining the songs to life with a swift kick in the butt. Even after this time, you can still crank the volume up and enjoy, which is wonderful and the singer is comfortable in his own skin. Gone is the teenage busker from the 60s, the neo-punk from the 70s and 80s, replaced by a wiser but still vital representative. It’s good. It’s very good.
As ever, my primary belief is that if you’re worth your salt as a music performing celebrity, you keep creating. You don’t stop creating and start regurgitating past glories like half-chewed cud. The past couple of years has returned several warhorses to the studio, and to them all I can say is “’bout time”! Both Gilmour and Davies come back in fine fashion, with one just a little sparkier than the other, but both worth the attention of fans and lovers of classic rock in general. Please don’t be strangers, guys.