Kinks – Muswell Hillbillies (Legacy Edition) (review)

Kinks – Muswell Hillbillies {Legacy Edition} (RCA / Legacy) review

For a band that made a slew of great albums, this record is one of their all-time best, made even better with the inclusion of bonus tracks and a live DVD.

The thing that makes the Kinks’ catalog so enjoyable is that they never repeated themselves.  After “Lola” became a worldwide smash in 1970, Ray Davies certainly could’ve knocked off another catchy, gender-bending pop song, but he didn’t.  Instead, he chose to explore the urban struggles of the British working class, something he had certainly done before in songs like “Dead End Street.”  But, with Muswell Hillbillies, he immersed those lyrics in American roots music – blues, country & Dixieland, and came up with one of the most enduring albums of their entire oeuvre.

While Davies has written many “out of step with the times” songs – “20th Century Man” is his most direct, and it’s led by an atypical acoustic guitar.  Brother Dave Davies answers Ray’s biting lyrics with some gritty slide guitar lines.  He’s not known for this type of playing, but it’s excellent throughout the record.

It’s the addition of non-traditional instruments that add incredible depth to these tracks.  The horns and accordion on “Alcohol” sound like someone slowly going insane.  The tempo speeds up and slows down, adding to the madness.  In another band’s hands, the song might’ve been a real bummer.  But, the Kinks add enough wit to the tale of the floozy taking advantage of the drunk, that we can all smirk along.

And, although some of the lyrics are bleak, it’s not all doom and gloom.  “Skin & Bones” is a rollicking number that deals with anorexia, while “Muswell Hillbillies” is a countrified anthem about people standing up to the government.  And, the entire record is held together by the excellent acoustic instrumentation throughout.

The Legacy Edition also includes a bonus DVD of rare footage from BBC television.  The two songs from the Old Grey Whistle Test are lip-synched and only somewhat interesting.  The real treat is The Kinks at the Rainbow, which features live performances interspersed with interview segments with the band.  This is a great snapshot of the Kinks in transition – opening with the old rocker “Til the End of the Day,” they segue right into the gentle “Waterloo Sunset.”  Joined by the Mike Cotton Sound on brass & clarinet, the band is surprisingly deft at recreating the earthy sounds of the Muswell Hillbillies’ tracks “Alcohol” and “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues.”  It’s such a departure from their signature sound that, when the band closes with “You Really Got Me,” it sounds completely foreign to the ears.

Rarely listed near the top of great Kinks’ albums, Muswell Hillbillies is definitely a triumph worth exploring.  —Tony Peters