Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What A Disappointment Music Series: Lola Vs. Powerman And The Money-Go-Round by The Kinks

A new possible series in which I look at albums generally seen as not up to any given group's standard.

This is one seriously weird album. Lola Vs. Powerman And The Money-Go-Round (which I will shorten to LvP) is generally seen as a disappointment having followed a series of brilliant conceptual albums by The Kinks, including Arthur, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society and others. I think it's because it's lacking the one neat throughline of those albums. And there's a sheen of self-pity and narcissism to it that is very off-putting, of world-famous rock stars telling us their problems are equivalent to starving strikers or nuclear war. It's pretty icky, though somehow ahead of its time. In some ways, the album plays better in the 2010s, when such sentiments have (regrettably) become more mainstream. Self-pity is now basically the coin of the realm in pop, self-obsession its reserve currency. In this, as in many other things, The Kinks were forward-looking.

But let's not go overboard--much of the album is pretty much exactly what you might want out of a Kinks album. You've got some killer singles--Lola and Apeman are truly great Kinks songs--and it might be their most rocking album ever. Powerman kicks so much ass it almost entirely redeems the album itself, a perfect rock track that combines message and medium perfectly. "Top Of The Pops" is one of the aforementioned "Woe is me!" Ray Davies songs about the music industry, but it is the least icky of them all because it's told first-person from the aspiring rock star, and its irony is much gentler than other songs. Rats is another one that is convincingly fierce, and it's one of several Dave Davies compositions on the album. You can hardly tell the difference between his songs and Ray's songs, which is high praise indeed.

But these songs are I guess supposed to complement songs like "Denmark Street", the aforementioned "Top Of The Pops" and "The Moneygoround", which frankly take the album in the wrong direction. This album is a beast with two heads, a work with two throughlines (the suckiness of the music industry and the loss of control and individual freedom) that it pretends to lump in with an overarching concept of weariness with modern life. If this sounds familiar, it's because the latter concept has served as the basis for most of their work, especially their next album, the superior Muswell Hillbillies. LvP is actually a great Kinks album if you yank off those tracks, which are uncomfortably on the nose lyrically (it's not unlike stumbling in on a bitter, heated argument that you're not a party to and don't quite get) and verge toward novelty songs in terms of the music. I'm sorry, Ray Davies, but your inability to get record executives to sign off on your ideas is just not in the same league as political oppression, it's just not, and it's just immature of you to suggest otherwise.

If you can get past those, though, you get some tracks that really shine. The pop moments on this album are the highlights, with the ubiquitous Lola (which hasn't aged seemingly at all, and is remarkable for how much The Kinks were able to get away with), Strangers as a gentle story of friendship formed in disastrous times and "This Time Tomorrow" as the dissolution of perhaps that very friendship. "A Long Way From Home" could function as a sequel to "Tomorrow" as well, in which we see the genesis of a greedy antihero who rises to the top to become Powerman, leaving his jilted friend to seek solace in dreams of living like an Apeman and how he has just "Got To Be Free". There is a concept to this album, and it gains an awful lot of power in the second half, when the junk is cleared away. Sadly, this album is no Muswell Hillbillies, but the songs on LvP are better than those on Hillbillies, it's just that there's not enough cohesion and too much self-obsessed ickiness here. Were it not for those (and arguably Lola should have remained a pure single and not have appeared on the album at all), one wonders if Davies would have kept his reputation alive--at least for a few more years, until his ill-advised Rock-musical theater fusion projects wrecked The Kinks commercially and critically, leaving the group to struggle through the '70s and have only a modest commercial revival in the '80s. And I'm sure it's all the record companies' fault.