Album Review: “Misfits” — The Kinks (1978)

blgkinksmisfitsMisfits was another commercial success for The Kinks, following the same trajectory as their previous album, but this time they even managed to score a Top 40 single (and sometime AOR-radio staple) A Rock & Roll Fantasy. Their label Arista was probably moderately pleased with the results; RCA, their previous label, must have been FUMING! I mean, those poor souls had to release such noncommercial and artistically barren records Preservation: Act II and Soap Opera — the both of them, filthy and foul!!

But The Kinks were going through a kind of mini-resurgence, as contemporary New Wave bands were wearing their Kinks-love badges with pride. As stated by Wikipedia:

“Beginning in the late 1970s, bands such as The Jam (“David Watts”), The Pretenders (“Stop Your Sobbing”, “I Go to Sleep”), and The Knack (“The Hard Way”) recorded covers of Kinks songs, which helped bring attention to the group’s new releases.”

And why not? Those classic Kinks songs had that perfect mix of melody and edge, acoustic and electric, dance-hall and dead-end street, and a new generation of fans were beginning to discover (or perhaps re-discover) their rich catalog of music.

Misfits is a generally stronger album than the previously issued Sleepwalker, but not dramatically so. What makes this album stand out is that the band seems less inhibited, more determined, less held back and more embracing of the conventions of the day while trusting the strength of their own material. The opening title track is a wonderful number, a smooth mid-tempo track with some beautiful overlaying acoustic and electric guitars, verses accompanied by tasteful electric keyboards, and powerfully honest lyrics. Yes it feels a bit Bob Seger Against The Wind-ish, but that was the era, and it’s a successful song in that vein. Hay Fever is a bouncy piece of pop that feels part Randy Newman, part New Wave. I’m not the biggest fan of the song, but it’s harmless.

Black Messiah is Ray’s treatise on racial tension. It has a sorta nice reggae-ish beat to it, and the music is quite agreeable, but the lyrics are a bit clunky, juvenile, and obvious. The album’s big single A Rock & Roll Fantasy comes up next, and it’s a beaut. It starts out seeming like a simple ballad, but it’s got some beat and crunch that gives the song weight. This is a strong number and definitely an album highlight. Also a fun song is the ode to being a tax exile In A Foreign Land, uptempo and with more of a rock vibe, Ray spills his guts about getting the heck out of England to save some shekels.

Permanent Waves definitely carries more of a New Wave vibe, which meshes agreeably with the song’s subject matter. It’s kind of a nifty tune, albeit a lesser one. Sort of reminds me of The Police in a few spots. Live Life is the album’s first out-and-out rocker: the new wave-ish verses lead into a crunchy bridge, which explodes into all out rock in the choruses. Your basic “think for yourself” styled song, it’s a good album cut. There’s even a lyrical throwback to one of their ’60s hits. I’m not going to tell you which one, because I honestly don’t think anybody’s reading this sentence at all. Out Of The Wardrobe slows things down a tad, but it’s a catchy-as-balls tune that treats transvestism with a measure of understanding and sensitivity missing from the rather predatory Lola 8 years previous.

Dave handles lead vocal and songwriting details on Trust Your Heart… and the song just kinda stinks. I don’t discount Dave’s contributions to the band, but often his songs are just so damn skippable. This is one of them. Finally we have Get Up, Ray’s big shout-out for the people in the middle, the downtrodden, the people who make the world work somehow but keep getting ignored. I love the feel of the song, its musicality, energy and spirit, and especially Ron Lawrence’s fine bass playing. It’s not a standout song, but a fun listen.

And that what makes Misfits worthwhile. It’s a breezy listen, an enjoyable album if not a classic or essential one. What is clear about the album is that by 1978, the band is starting to really get a grasp on themselves and merge their sensibilities with contemporary music. Definitely worth seeking out for fans.

Regarding the bonus material: Father Christmas is an absolutely ESSENTIAL Christmas song for me. Absolutely classic in every way. A superior rocker. Don’t give my brother a Steve Austin outfit, indeed!

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