Even in an industry like rock and roll where eccentricity is more often the norm than the exception, there are those acts that are considered more bizarre than most. Two that fall into that category are the Kinks and Nick Lowe, both of whom have strong new albums that may slightly tarnish their image as weirdos.
The Kinks have been around since the original British invasion when they scored with "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night." Once they began touring the states, they began to develop a cult following that eventually became so loyal as to verge on fanatic. Though the Kinks consistently put out quality albums that were quite sane in content - Kinks leader Ray Davies is considered by most rock-and-roll fans to be one of the art's true geniuses - their live performances were something else again.
Many times Ray Davies would stagger onto the stage practically incoherent, and proceed to stumble over his equipment while forgetting the lyrics to his songs. The band would constantly bicker and sometimes end up physically fighting each other on stage. (This once happened at a D.A.R. Constitution Hall show here in Washington.) Generally, their performances were boozy and sloppy, which only endeared them to the faithful but made their album-support tours pretty risky.
So, it's a bit of a surprise to listen to their latest release, "Low Budget," and hear the Kinks sounding tight and full. Not that their musicianship was ever really sub-par, but Ray Davies' lyrics usually carried the songs while the melody became secondary. On "Low Budget" the balance is just about even.
Ray Davies wrote all eleven tunes on "Low Budget" and produced the record, and it's his production that makes the record as strong as it is musically.
"Attitude" has Davies screaming like a punk rocker but what he says is a bit more involved. Despite the fact that he stole his main riff from the Stones' "Jumpin" Jack Flash," the song rocks out with a forecefulness that is surprisingly accessible.
"Catch Me Now, I'm Falling" is a self-pitying love ballad that Davies handles perfectly, while "Pressure" and "National Health" both deal with poking at today's society. Another tune, "Gallon of Gas," is more current-event oriented as Davies complains how he can't even get gasoline.
Davies has always been known for thematic concept and, though "Low Budget" is not technically a thematic album, most of the material deals with mans' ability - or lack of it - to survive everyday pressures and annoyances. On "I Wish I Could Fly Like Superman," Davies laments his scrawny physique and meditates on what he could do with a body like Superman's. On both the title cut and "Misery" he's back at it again, complaining about life's bad breaks.
All the references to current themes like the gas shortage and Superman once again show Davies' ability to mold his ideas from current events and experiences. Combined with that is probably the tightest harmonic and instrumental backups he's ever gotten from his band. (No musicians are listed, but guitarist brother Dave Davies and bassist Mick Avery remain from the original Kinks.) The overall result is strong rock and roll matched with incisive lyrics. And that's not bizarre at all.
Nick Lowe's craziness stems much more from his sometimes shocking, sometimes lurid, sometimes funny lyrics - lyrics that often become obscured behind the steady rock and roll produced by him and his band Rockpile, co-led by the equally talented Dave Edmunds.
Lowe's latest album title, "Labour of Lust," promised more of the strange doings that began last year with his first American release, "Pure Pop for Now People." (In England, the album was called "Jesus of the Cool," but American distributors felt that family record chains wouldn't take to that too well.)
Lowe had been previously known as Elvis Costello's producer, a task that would add a touch of the odd to anyone. However, Lowe recently said that what he wants from Costello is a hit single rather than a loyal, but relatively small, group of admirers.
Lowe's own album seems to bear out the same wish for himself... "Cruel to be Kind" has "hit" written all over it. Co-written with Ian Gomm, another rising star from the Stiff label that originally recorded Costello, the song has an irresistible rhythm, a chorus you can sing in the shower, and enough exuberance to start a party.
The rest of "Labour of Lust" keeps up the same formula with great success. The tunes are crisp and this time the lyrics are relatively normal. Lowe has managed to retain his spark while refining his act.
In the radio world of formatted play lists and big consultants, "Pure Pop for Now People" was overlooked. It's going to be awfully tough to overlook "Labour of Lust." In this business eventually there's room for everybody. CAPTION: Picture, THE KINKS SAILED IN ON THE BRITISH WAVE OF ROCK AND ROLL - AND NOW THEY'VE TOUCHED SOLID GROUND.