Rock CD Reviews: A Pair of Golden Codgers

Old timers Ray Davies, an ex-Kink, and Donald Fagen, ex-Steely Dan, have released surprisingly youthful solo albums.

“Morph the Cat” (Reprise); “Other People’s Lives” (V2)

By James Marcus

“Hope I die before I get old,” declared The Who’s Pete Townshend in 1965, and certainly there have been times, during his drink-and-drug-addled middle decades, when he seemed determined to fulfill this youthful prophecy. Yet Townshend, along with a good many of his rock-and-roll peers, has survived into ripe old age. Some, like the Rolling Stones, have turned into glorified oldies acts. But a handful — like Donald Fagen (ex-Steely Dan) and Ray Davies (ex-Kinks) — may actually be poised to do some of their best work.

Fagen, whose “Morph the Cat” represents his first solo release in 13 years, was never strictly a rock-and-roll guy. In tandem with Walter Becker and a rotating crew of session aces, he turned Steely Dan into the sleekest of studio machines. And his solo outings — “The Nightfly” (1982) and “Kamakiriad” (1993) — have explored similar terrain, couching Fagen’s dyspeptically soulful vocals in precision-tooled, jazzy arrangements. I doubt that a single particle of grit has entered his musical universe since Elliot Randall squeezed off those anarchic licks at the end of “Reeling in the Years.” Yet Fagen’s craft and his skills as a lyricist have grown steadily deeper. And on “Morph the Cat,” mortality shadows his music without killing off its essential buoyancy. Even his dirges have a funky bounce to them.

Take “Brite Nightgown” (the title alludes to W.C. Fields’ pet name for Death, “the fellow in the bright nightgown”). The piece kicks off with a zigzagging organ figure, then drops into a tight groove. And in a series of witty verses, Fagen has one close encounter after another with the Grim Reaper, who won’t even let him hallucinate in peace: “I shared in all of nature’s secrets / But when I finally came around / I’m sitting on the rug getting a victory hug / From the fella in the Brite Nightgown.” In their morbid concision, the lyrics suggest a pill-popping Emily Dickinson. The music, though, is as vibrant as ever, with elegant horn charts and a stinging guitar solo by Wayne Krantz.

Elsewhere Fagen reckons with a potential suicide (“The Night Belongs to Mona”), a washed-up rock band (“H Gang”), and the ghost of Ray Charles, who urges him to “find your bad self” — not historically a problem for this terminal neurotic. Still, some of the finest moments on “Morph the Cat” occur when Fagen eases up and counts his blessings. “The Great Pagoda of Funn,” despite its goofy title, features one of his most open, earnest vocals, addressed to his wife of more than ten years: “You and I / Know the world can’t be like this / It’s our love that makes it shine.”

Whoa, Nellie! Has the sardonic voice of Steely Dan gone soft on us? (Not completely, it turns out: during the bridge, this adoring husband allows that he and the missus are “one thoughtless word away / From poisoned skies / And severed heads / And pain and lies.”) In fact Fagen’s music is at its best when he plays to his opposing strengths, when his cynical and sentimental sides overlap. The result, to cite his own line from the title cut, is “cool and sweet and slightly rough” — and immensely pleasurable.

For Ray Davies, on the other hand, rough (or entirely frayed) edges have always been part of the package. The crazed propulsion of “You Really Got Me,” which first put the Kinks on the map in 1964, has now inspired several generations of three-chord head bangers. And even as Davies developed into a sharp, sophisticated songwriter — with a knack for the instantly hummable melody — his band remained a quasi shambles, with a taste for booze and prankish misbehavior. They were actually banned from the United States for four years during the early sixties. No wonder one of their most coherent stage productions was the Katzenjammer-Kids-like “Schoolboys in Disgrace.”

Perhaps it was the sheer chaos of life with the Kinks that caused Davies to put his solo career on hold. But at age 61, more than a decade after his last outing with the band, he’s delivered “Other People’s Lives.” The first thing to note is that his voice sounds exactly the same: very English, sly, shy, with a persistent edge of irony (a quality unknown to many of his American counterparts, although Fagen has an excellent grip on it.) It’s as though the guy’s larynx has been preserved in amber. The same thing might be said for the overall sound of “Other People’s Lives,” which was crisply recorded in London’s Konk Studios but boasts very little in the way of sonic bells and whistles: no sampling, no beatbox, no synthesized shenanigans. Just layer after layer of jangling, jagged guitars, cunningly arranged by an old pro — eat your heart out, R.E.M., not to mention Oasis and every other neo-Britpop band of the last ten years.

Not that Davies is denying the passage of time. The disc opens with “Things Are Gonna Change,” which makes his middle years sound like one long hangover: “This is the morning after all that went before.” The next song, “After the Fall,” strikes a similar note of dazed contrition, although Davies can’t resist cutting up a little in the verse: “I’m a sinner waiting at the Traveler’s Rest / Seeking refuge from the storm–and I’m a grateful guest.

Yet Davies has seldom triumphed as a confessional artist. His forte is, as the title would have it, other people’s lives, and I prefer the social observation and gentle comedy of “Next Door Neighbor,” where you can practically hear him clucking his tongue in sympathy, or the hilarious “Is There Life After Breakfast?” With its mandolin and acoustic slide, the latter cut hearkens back the glories of “Muswell Hillbillies,” even as it enunciates a very British prescription for self-help: “Lift yourself out of the doldrums / Make yourself a cup of tea / Drag your emotions out of the gutter / Don’t wallow in self-pity.” It’s the tea, of course, that’s the real kicker, and Davies wraps up the rollicking chorus with a therapeutic aside: “Put the kettle on, mate.” That should get you through the hard times — but if it fails, just give “Other People’s Lives” an additional spin. It’s brisk!

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