Ask any Kinks fan about the band's records between 1970's Lola vs. Powerman and 1977's Sleepwalker, and chances are you'll get an answer that lies somewhere between defensiveness and abject shame. Of all the twists and turns in the Kinks' career, the period spent at RCA was indubitably the strangest, as Ray Davies, high on the commercial success of Lola, tried to bridge the gap between his music-hall influences and full-blown musical theater. The results were less than commercially successful and (according to the critical consensus) more than a little bit misguided. Now that Velvel has announced plans to reissue the band's entire RCA and Arista output, it's time to wave the old "critical reconsideration" wand over the first four releases in the series: Muswell Hillbillies, Everybody's in Showbiz, Preservation Act 1 and Preservation Act 2. Were they really as embarrassing as, say, the Who's It's Hard? The answers are, in order, Absolutely Not, No, No, and Oh Lord Yes.
Recorded in 1971, Muswell Hillbillies remains one of the finest records in the Kinks' entire catalog. From the dourly humorous "20th Century Man" to the wistful jangle of "Muswell Hillbilly," the album follows the plight of a working-class English community struggling to come to terms with urban angst and government-imposed "improvements." Despite the potentially cumbersome theme, Ray's lyrical touch is surprisingly light, with wit and pathos present in equal doses. Originally released on RCA's godawful "Dynaflex" vinyl (which sounded like shit, but you could bend it in half without breaking it), Muswell Hillbillies now sounds better than ever, and anyone who digs the Kinks truly needs a copy. The same can almost be said for Everybody's in Showbiz, the half-live/half-studio concept album about life on the road. The live stuff (recorded in 1972 at Carnegie Hall) captures the Kinks at their most endearingly campy, and "Celluloid Heroes" remains a genuine classic, but too many of the other studio tracks sound like weak outtakes from Muswell Hillbillies. More worrisome, titles like "Maximum Consumption" and "Unreal Reality" show Ray veering toward the sort of heavy-handed social commentary that would reach full flower on the Preservation albums.
Based around that most cliched of concept-album premises - an Orwellian society - the Preservation albums could have been utterly unlistenable; and, with the exception of "Mirror of Love" and the bonus live recording of "Slum Kids," there's precious little to recommend on the exposition-laden Act 2. But Ray still managed to get off some great songs on Act 1, including "Daylight," "Sweet Lady Genevieve" and "One of the Survivors," making the album a treat even for those who don't care to follow the plot. Neither of the Preservation records sold well, but Ray would return to the rock-opera well - with 1975's Soap Opera and Schoolboys in Disgrace - before leading the Kinks into arena-rock glory in the late '70s and early '80s. Even now, Ray prattles on about reviving Preservation, when the characters, plot and songs of Muswell Hillbillies always made for a superior musical. It's kind of sad, really. But then, that's the Kinks for ya. (BY DAN EPSTEIN)
DEREK BAILEY/MIN XIAO-FENViper (Avant)
This is a good time for Derek Bailey fans. In the last few years there's been a gratifying glut of Bailey releases - solo, group, archival/historical. And some of his recent recorded collaborations represent a kind of branching out and genre-crossing that's still comparatively scarce in, say, pop music. Their unusualness falls into two categories: playing with the relatively conservative - Pat Metheny, Tony Williams, Lee Konitz - and surprising-to-odd genre-pairing with people like drum 'n' bass DJ Ninj, dancer Min Tanaka (hear Music and Dance on Revenant, an absolute, permanent classic), poppish Japanese guitarist Keiji Haino (which was probably inevitable; Haino's played and recorded with practically everybody else) and Japanese rock band Ruins, to name a few.
Which leads me to Viper. Listening to this new record, a string duo pairing Derek with the Shanghai-born Min Xiao-Fen on the pipa - a very small, very ancient four-stringed Chinese instrument - reminds me of a comment once made by a critic to the effect that it was no surprise how quickly and enthusiastically Bailey's idiosyncratic, "non-idiomatic" guitar playing had been taken up by Eastern audiences. The guitar language he created, with its strong emphasis on pure "string sound," high-note pointillism and rhythmic elasticity, not to mention his fondness for extreme varieties of timbre and attack - in a word, his "physicalist" approach to his instrument - does, to my Western ears, bear a conceptual and musical resemblance to some Asian string music.
Viper also provides interesting examples of the fascinating language (or languages, or perhaps dialects) of free improvisation. There's a tasty but short sequence midway through "Zhu Ye" ("Various Species") where Bailey plays a walking-rhythm pingpong of high and middle notes that sounds like a cross between a koto and the cigar-box-banjo sound of Min's instrument. Min's playing on the pipa ranges from rapid, virtuosic trills and scalar arpeggios to a dull scraping-cardboard sound that at times runs the risk of reducing the music to percussive materialism - a pitfall of free improvisation avoided, fortunately, through Viper's momentum and inventiveness. This is a record that will reward repeated - and concentrated - listening. (Tony Mostrom)