Tuned In To Music

Reflections from a lifetime

Review: Ray Davies, Workingman’s Cafe

Workingman's CafePaul McCartney once envisioned himself at 64 as a bit of a dodderer who would require needing and feeding.  Ray Davies, who is 64, is just as likely to skewer your comfortable and self-satisfied world view as he did when he was 24.  Davies, the main creative driving force behind the Kinks, has been more or less silent for a long time.  The last Kinks album appeared on a small indie label in 1994, he released a solo album in 1998, and then no albums until 2006’s Other People’s Lives.  Now, just two years later we get Workingman’s Cafe and based on what we hear here Davies’ absence has been our loss.  Davies has long had a reputation as a first-rate songwriter and a wry and often insightful social critic.  He hasn’t lost any of that.  Workingman’s Cafe is filled with well written songs and pointed social commentary. 

Our previous review of Damien Dempsey’s Seize the Day makes for an interesting comparison with Workingman’s Cafe.  Both Dempsey and Davies write songs that point out social and economic problems in the world around us.  Both are excellent songwriters with Dempsey having the edge in striking lyrics and Davies the better at pure songwriting craft.  Where Dempsey’s music is often fueled by righteous anger, Davies’ tends toward sarcasm and wit.  Dempsey is a young man who is impatient for change; Davies is considerably older and although he wants change and argues pointedly for it, he is more resigned to the state of the world.  Dempsey tends to defend groups that are consistently shit on by the privileged while Davies tends to point out the downsides of wider social and cultural changes.  Davies has had a reputation for yearning for the good old days in the UK since the Kinks 1968 album The VIllage Green Preservation Society and that attitude is present in Workingman’s Cafe’s title track where he looks for a workman’s diner in a world of internet cafes.  Although I don’t know, I’m guessing that when Dempsey thinks of the “good old days” in the UK he thinks of the centuries of atrocities committed by the British against the Irish.  Bit of a difference there.

Several songs on Workingman’s Cafe are concerned with the effects of globalization.  Album opener “Vietnam Cowboys” addresses the movement of manufacturing jobs from the US to slave-wage factories in Asia in juxtaposition with the spread of American pop culture over the rest of the world.  It’s a great song.   “Hymn for a New Age” and “Peace in Our Time” are powerful cries for a change from the incessant war and cold-eyed greed that characterize so much government and corporate policy.  When Davies turns from the social to the personal he doesn’t wallow in the type of self absorption that leads so many singer-songwriters to elevate their mundane personal problems to the level of epic statements about the human condition.  In “The Morphine Song” Davies sings about his experiences in hospital after he was shot pursuing a mugger in New Orleans.  It’s a strikingly original song with a vocal hook that sinks in and refuses to let go.

I hope Workingman’s Cafe signals a return to more frequent releases from Davies who has as much to say as he did back in the day when every new Kinks album was eagerly awaited.  He’s a great songwriter and Workingman’s Cafe is a very good album.  Very nice to have him back.

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06/19/2008 - Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews

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