These all-star gatherings are more fun for the artists than the listener.
Paul Whitelaw 2010-11-01
Following on from 2009’s The Kinks Choral Collection, on which Ray Davies rearranged his back catalogue with the Crouch End Festival Chorus, See My Friends finds him sifting through his songbook once again, only this time he’s brought Bon Jovi along.
Yes, it’s a duets album, of the type that veteran artists produce when they’ve nothing left to prove. Such ventures seldom serve much point beyond flattering the star with attention from fellow musicians, who in turn are honoured by association. Plus they sell well.
Ray Davies doesn’t need to record a soporific version of Tired of Waiting with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody, any more than Bruce Springsteen needs to trample the bittersweet Better Things with his wholly unsuitable bombast. But both were doubtless thrilled by the opportunity to record with Davies. And that’s just it: these all-star gatherings are more fun for the artists than they are for the listener.
Try as one might, it’s impossible to resist comparing these duets against the hallowed originals, especially when their arrangements barely differ. The likes of This is Where I Belong with Frank Black (billed as Black Francis) and Long Way From Home with Lucinda Williams are pleasant recordings of wonderful songs, but what is their point? Jackson Browne may be in simpatico with Davies’ unweathered voice on Waterloo Sunset, but will anyone ever reach for this version over the magical original? Will they even remember it exists?
For better or downright ghastly, the most memorable tracks are those on which the guests imprint themselves. The undoubted highlights are Mumford & Sons’ folk-gospel medley, Days / This Time Tomorrow, its arrangement madly ambitious compared with its companions, and Spoon’s shoegazing treatment of the proto-psychedelic title-track. The late Alex Chilton sounds genuinely enthused on ‘Til the End of the Day, a song his old band Big Star covered during the Third/Sister Lovers sessions. Recorded in 2009, it was the spur for these sessions.
But the tenderness and wit of Davies’ songs and singing is smothered by his blunter collaborators. However sincere, Springsteen’s bellowing simply doesn’t work. Paloma Faith’s Lola is a wretched, over-sung X Factor throwaway. Metallica’s drilling of You Really Got Me is bar-band bad. And Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora’s overwrought stadium-rock assault on Celluloid Heroes is a laughable abomination.
It’s testament to Davies’ legacy that he emerges from this inessential project with his dignity intact.