The Kinks: Muswell Hillbillies
Velvel Records VEL-SC-79801
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Review by Rick Kosmick - June 15, 2015
"Muswell Hillbillies" by The Kinks was not particularly successful upon it's initial release in November, 1971 (it did not chart in England and only reached #48 in the U.S.). However, I fondly remember reading a review in Stereo Review Magazine who gave it their award as Album of the Year 1972. This review was instrumental in my decision to purchase "Muswell Hillbillies". What an excellent personal choice. In my view, it is the best album that The Kinks ever released and a classic that has grown in stature over the years. And to top it off, this SACD version is an absolute sonic treat.
The album refers to the Muswell Hills area of North London where the brothers, Ray and Dave Davies, grew up. But it is not a concept album; rather the songs are built around a theme based on the British working-class and conflicts of a sociological change. Ray Davies wrote all the songs in his very reflective writing style that harkens back to a bygone era and a simpler time. It mainly concerns the displacement of people moving to neighbourhoods of urban renewal after World War ll supposedly in the name of progress and a better way of life. Davies lyrics are often filled with sadness or cynicism but, they also include elements of joy, humour and kindred spirit of working-class English society. I think of this release as a 'roots' album.
Ray Davies is truly a great songwriter who frequently writes his lyrics from the British perspective. "Muswell Hillbillies" is filled with writings on life in England but Davies also blends in elements of Americana on the track "Oklahoma U.S.A." plus melodies of some songs that are set to the sounds of New Orleans jazz or influence of country music. And yes, there are a few rock songs such as the great opening track "20th Century Man" or my favourite cut on the album "Here Come the People in Grey" which is an excellent blues rock stomp. What is fundamental to the production of this album are recording techniques that go back as far as the 1920s-1930s to give off an old-time feel to the music. A good example is the song "Alcohol" that uses a brass section reminiscent of British music hall from days gone bye.
I earlier referred to the SACD as a sonic treat. I will elabourate on the audio quality by stating..... well, it is simply astonishing! The first thing that came into my mind is the wonderful transparency of the sound. The separation and detail of the instruments is stellar and I use the (electric, slide, acoustic, reasonator) guitars as examples of 'sparkling' clarity in high resolution audio. There is a beautiful airy type quality to the audio and presence of in-the-studio sound.
Actually, the audio quality is quite remarkable for recordings from 1971. First, Ray Davies production was excellent and it was well recorded by the audio engineer Mike Bobak. Also, credit is due to Bob Ludwig who remastered the source tapes in 1998 that were utilized for this SACD release (2004). Just listen to this SACD and it is obvious the original master tapes were sourced for this release.
I do have a comment about the original mix of Ray Davies vocals for this album. On some occasions, his vocals are pushed back a bit in the mix and although it may be a minor issue (and at least for me a very slight distraction), I cannot fathom the reason for this mixing decision. I also want to be clear, it certainly does not detract from a 5 Star rating for this classic album.
Also, a comment about the two bonus tracks (Mountain Woman, Kentucky Moon). Both songs were recorded during the Muswell Hillbillies sessions but were not included on the original album. They are a rare case where the bonus material is exceptional and a perfect fit adding to the music quality of "Muswell Hillbillies". This SACD ends up with a total running time of 51:46 minutes that is a sheer listening delight. With the sonics for this version as nothing short of magnificent, this Kinks album is indeed reserved for a special place in my music library.
Copyright © 2015 Rick Kosmick and HRAudio.net