Of the few bands to survive the British Invasion, the Kinks are arguably the clearest prototypes of the heavy metal and new wave artists who pervaded the airwaves a generation later. Manic, mean and moral all at once, their songs consisted of melodies often built on primitive, "Louie, Louie" like riffs, but they were just as often vehicles for some of the most intelligent, probing and humorous lyrics of the day. The Kinks are still doing the same dichotomous dance; it's the rest of the world that's fallen in step. Their most recent album, "Give the People What They Want," is shot through with an irony altogether appropriate to the style they asserted in the late '60s. The album opens with "Around the Dial," a gentle blast at the sorry state to which rock radio has sunk. Although it was radio that hoisted the Kinks from obscurity long ago, composer/lead singer Ray Davies presents the situation through the viewpoint of a young listener searching in vain for a deejay unswayed by fads, ratings or record company hype. "One of our deejays is missing," he laments, "and I can't believe that you've been taken off the air." Not since "Mohammed's Radio" has a rock song so forcefully invoked the powers (and responsibilties) of the medium. If the shrill, megalomaniacal jocks of radio's new age were to detect the humanistic imperatives Davies implies, it would surely give them pause; but then, of course, the song would have no meaning. Then again, both song and album title are reminders that new-age listeners can better connect to having a Howard Stern heap verbal abuse on them than to hearing quality rock and roll. The title cut, in the first person collective, prevents the song from being a self-righteous tirade: When Oswald shot the President he was insane Still we watched the reruns again and again We all sit glued while the killer takes aim Hey, Mom! There goes a piece of the President's brain! "Killer's Eyes" is a natural follow-up, an exercise in open curiosity about what makes an assassin tick. This song, as well as "Predictable," show that Davies hasn't lost the ability to limn the sometimes mundane details that make up a complex character. Unfortunately, the playing is uninventive, the vocals strained and the production so muddy and monaural-sounding that even a dedicated minimalist could lose interest by the time "Add It Up," the album's only real clunker, ends side one. "Destroyer," which begins the flip side, is the album's most charming (and alarming) tune. It opens by alluding lyrically to the transvestite of the Kinks' 1970 hit while musically citing 1964's "All Day and All of the Night": I met a girl called Lola And I took her back to my place Feeling guilty, feeling scared Hidden cameras everywhere. . . Girl, I want you here with me But I'm really not as cool as I'd like to be But the song is more than a sly reprise of Kinks successes; it rolls unflinchingly into a punkish discourse on paranoia, "the great destroyer." Here, rather than anywhere solid on the first side, the Kinks establish the axis on which "Give the People" turns. Davies and company are concerned not so much with contemporary dualities -- sanity and insanity, love and hate, fantasy and reality -- as with the ever-narrowing line that separates them. The characters that populate this album spend a good deal of their time walking some kind of tightrope, and because they never quite fall on one side or the other, they're easily identifiable in a tense, ambiguous world. Once established, the theme is reinforced in a couple of self-explanatory, pedestrian tunes. It's wh comically pitiful, of course, but his desperate rationalizations never lost their human quality. "A Little Bit of Abuse" treats its protagonist with equal parts objective humanism and humor. Wondering whether a victim really loves her abuser or is simply afraid to leave, Davies interrupts his musings to inquire, "Excuse me, is this your tooth?" It's precisely this levity-among-the-ruins that has kept the Kinks so lovable over the years. "Give the People" has some rough moments musically, and Davies' messy production work is inexplicable, unless he thinks it lives down to current standards. Lyrically, however, this is the band's finest work since "Village Green Preservation Society." Let's hope someone locates that missing deejay.
THE ALBUM -- The Kinks, "Give the People What They Want," Arista AL 9567.