Now hear this: Giving The Kinks’ “Phobia” a 1st listen

When it comes to The Kinks, I consider myself a pretty decent fan. I love the 1960s and 1970s records quite a bit. I’ve used “The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society” to convert more than one friend into a fan of the band, too.

I'll admit, I got very excited when the official Twitter account of The Kinks followed me. It's exciting to have that connection to a band you love and enjoy.
I’ll admit, I got very excited when the official Twitter account of The Kinks followed me. It’s exciting to have that connection to a band you love and enjoy.

But I’ll admit that when it comes to the late 1980s and early 1990s materials by the band, I’m largely in the dark.

A part of it is that the albums can be pretty hard to find in a lot of smaller markets. Until the last couple years, the majority of my listening came from physical media (CDs, vinyl records, cassettes).

But as digital media has become more widespread and inclusive, we have the ability to listen to more music that had been previously difficult (or cost prohibitive) to track down. What a blessing! My subscription to Spotify has been put to good use over the last year, especially.

I have friends who swear by The Kinks, who believe this group should be held to the same esteem as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, etc. In fact, many of them would hold The Kinks to a higher esteem.

These are opinions I don’t take lightly, and I’m certainly of the opinion that The Kinks have been wrongly overlooked for way, way, way too long.

But I’m a part of that overlooking, since there are several albums of theirs that I haven’t listened to.

I have decided to rectify this.

In the process, I figured I’d also try doing a different kind of feature with my blog. The “Now hear this” thing may become a label I use to identify listening to music for the first time, as I’ll just now be hearing it for the first time. Dig it?

There have been rumors off and on for years about The Kinks getting back together. I’d love to see it happen if Ray and Dave Davies are game, and it would be cool if Mick Avory came on board too. But it can’t be The Kinks without the Brothers Davies (just as Oasis can’t be Oasis without the Gallagher brothers), so we’ll see what happens.

Any new studio album that The Kinks would release would have to be compared against their last new studio album, 1993’s “Phobia.” For whatever reason, that’s an album I’ve never listened to, that I’ve never TRIED to listen to. I don’t know if it’s good, bad or somewhere in the middle.

So for the inaugural “now hear this,” I’m going to give “Phobia” a spin and see where it takes me. Please keep in mind, these really are first impressions. This isn’t an in-depth analysis after spending hours or days or years with the material, researching it, digging into other reviews or anything like that.

Ready? Let’s go.

The album cover to The Kinks' 1993 album
The album cover to The Kinks’ 1993 album “Phobia.”

“Phobia” (1993)

01. “Opening.”

An ominous tone is punctuated by some tasty guitar riffing and some drum beats at the end. A very short piece (less than 40 seconds), setting things up.

02. “Wall of Fire.”

That great almost-metal guitar tone erupts at the beginning. A solid rocker, and actually kind of makes me think of Oasis. Nice swapping of lead vocals, too, with nice harmony parts. A solid song to kick off the album properly.

03. “Drift Away.”

Love the “ooooh” at the beginning, and the “drift away, just drift away” vocals sounds like some classic Kinks goodness. Then it starts rocking. Kinda reminds me of The Boomtown Rats, in a way. Another great passing off of lead vocals, the different tones work with the different styles of performance on those parts. “… End of civilization, it’s all over now …” “It’s Apocalypse Now!” Dark stuff! Some anger, some distress, almost approaches apathy. One gets some relief at the drifting away parts, the obvious intent (well done!).

04. “Still Searching.”

Keyboards intro, feels slightly like the late 1980s / early 1990s kind of ambiance. A pleasant mid-tempo piece. “Destination still unknown,” still looking for the way. I like that, doesn’t matter the money or success you find. Very universal, you can relate to that. Lots of vocals on this one, with a pretty steady instrumental bed. Not a bad track halfway through, but doesn’t grab me as much as the previous two songs did.  The last minute or so of the song is my favorite part, with the bass taking over and the guitar solo adding some weight to the track. The Kinks brought me back in! “Still searching for my dream,” love it.

05. “Phobia.”

More guitar hero fun at the start, almost channels the “I Love Rock and Roll” kind of vibe, similar notes. A fun rocker, the lyrics going beyond the general riffs that comprise the song’s sound. I could picture this kind of song on a Spinal Tap album, ha! “Creepy crawlies that make you squirm!” Ha! I don’t know how serious this song is, but I’m having fun with it. Whatchoo got? Phobia!

06. “Only a Dream.”

Acoustic guitars and splashy drums, I’m already in and the song isn’t even 10 seconds old yet. It’s a story song about the narrator meeting a young executive lady and their conversation. “Hiya handsome.” It’s classic Kinks, something that could almost be tedious, but told with quirk and humor that elevates it to something highly enjoyable. A highlight of the album so far, at least for my humble ears. Very earnest vocals. The reunion with the executive goddess isn’t so pleasant. “Life’s just like that elevator, it takes you up and brings you down.” I know this song will be playing in my head over the next few days.

07. “Don’t.”

I didn’t see this coming. Starting off with some general observations, reaching a crowd, looking up and seeing a man standing on a ledge. That’ll suck you in quick (not unlike “Save the Life of My Child,” the Simon and Garfunkel song). “Don’t look down, it’s a long way to fall / and I’d sure like to know what made it happen.” Some social commentary here, I think, about the pressures people face. A very interesting song, and the vocals sell it.

08. “Babies.”

Picking up the pace again, some nice guitar riffing. “Babies crying from the womb, ‘Not much room / can I come out, mother?'” Heh, well, you don’t run into those kinds of lyrics everyday. Lots of obstacles and fears for this baby, per the lyrics. More social commentary, a different kind of perspective. Again, has enough of The Kinks’ quirk to keep the song from getting TOO heavy.

09. “Over the Edge.”

Oooh, this is different. I like this. Some keyboard strings / horns kinds of things, and the vocals are plucky. Very upbeat, despite the lyrical content being a lot more serious. You tap your toes as you empathize with the characters of the song. Very Kinky! The keyboard organ sound right before the parting “right over the edge” adds another nice texture.

10. “Surviving.”

Thundering drums and driving guitars start this track sizzling. Another universal approach song, about surviving the best you can, etc. Not bad, but it’s nothing terribly original. Pleasant, but inessential.  Around the 4 minute mark, the tempo changes a bit and the song takes on a different tone with some nice sustained vocals. I enjoy hearing the guitar picking in the background. Really, it’s not a bad song or recording, it just doesn’t do a lot for me.

11. “It’s Alright (Don’t Think About It).”

The guitar starts off nice and raunchy, and the vocal is punchy and bright. This song would sound great when cruising down the highway with windows down and the volume cranked high. The drums and guitar set a compelling groove. This definitely helps pick things back up after “Surviving.”

12. “The Informer.”

Bright acoustic guitar sounds and a restrained drum sound. Compelling, setting up a “rendezvous” between two old acquaintances, old friends. “It’s strange we always go to church on Sundays / after getting right out of it on a Saturday night / And if we stay here too long, I know that we’ll quarrel / and end up having a fight, just a couple of losers putting the world to right.” Man, I really hope this is a song about the Davies brothers. It’s probably too obvious, so perhaps it isn’t. But it’s nice to think of Ray and Dave sharing a beer and talking about the old days, reliving memories, comparing battle scars … It isn’t without its anger, especially when it comes to suffering caused, pride, betrayal, etc. A compelling story song, another album highlight.

13. “Hatred (A Duet).”

Nice “ooooh-oooooh” vocals, a punchy intro, and a “hey!” to kick things off. Great way to get things going. A faster beat and vocal delivery. Nice trading off of vocals. Again, one can read into the song the background of the Davies brothers, but that also may be too obvious. Still, the energy is very up, the piano sound throughout is fun. A wonderful rocker. “Hatred is the only thing that keeps us together.” Politics and religion brought into the mix, too, another “message” song. But a fun head bopper to keep it grounded. Forms a great one-two punch with “The Informer” before it. Organ sounds and harmonica? Yes, please. Hatred never sounded so fun.

14. “Somebody Stole My Car.”

A car alarm gets things going. A fun bass line puts bounce into the song, too. Theft, fear, police, society … The backing track is a lot more fun and interesting than you might expect. Feels like a 1980s holdover. Another song that isn’t bad, but halfway through and there’s nothing that makes me go “ooooh, neat.” The chorus hook is nice, but the verse lyric doesn’t hold my interest. Filler, but not awful for that. Ha, at the end they reference The Beatles’ “Drive My Car” with the “beep beep, beep beep / yeah!” line. OK, that gave me a chuckle.

15. “Close to the Wire.”

Cool guitar progression starts this one off. Nice unison singing on this, a passionate lead vocal and some nice harmonies on the chorus. Could very easily have worked as a soundtrack song … maybe someday it’ll be rediscovered and used as one. A slower rock song, but highly enjoyable. Again, big props on the strong lead vocals.

16. “Scattered.”

A pleasant enough jaunt, with plenty of rhymes with the word “scattered” used early on. Nicely knit lyrics, an enjoyable instrumental bedding and nice vocals punched in throughout. The song looks at little things and big things after a relationship ends, how everything that matters still scatters, so the message is very much about enjoying what you have while you have it, enjoying who you have while you have them, that over time everything gets scattered anyway. What could have been a sad, forlorn ballad drenched in melancholy is handled with some humor and shoulder shrugging. That feels very much like The Kinks, to me.

Final thoughts

If anything, the album suffers from being a bit too long. The shortest song, besides “Opening,” is 4 minutes. A handful of the songs are 5 or 6 minutes long. With 16 tracks, you’re getting your money’s worth for music, there is the occasional craving for something short, pithy, to-the-point.

But being a price-conscious consumer, I appreciate getting more bang for the buck. The great songs carry the excess, too. I’d rather have the songs than not. But if I had to ax any for whatever reason, I would have left off “Opening,” “Babies,” “Surviving” and “Somebody Stole My Car.” … But give me more listens, maybe I’ll come around on those!

Will I re-listen to this album? Yes. There are several songs I very much enjoyed on the first listen, and I am eager to see what else I pick up with future listens. “Wall of Fire,” “Drift Away,” “Only a Dream,” “Over the Edge,” “It’s Alright (Don’t Think About It),” “The Informer,” “Hatred (A Duet)” and “Close to the Wire” are my favorites on the album after one listen, and that’s not a bad haul.

Conclusion: “Phobia” may not topple my already established favorites from the 1960s and 1970s, but it’s definitely worth a listen and is a worthy addition to The Kinks’ collection. I look forward to trying out the other later Kinks albums to see what gold lies in those grooves.

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One thought on “Now hear this: Giving The Kinks’ “Phobia” a 1st listen

  1. I got a chance to see the Kinks a couple of times during their “Low Budget” and “Give the People What They Want” tours back in the 80s.
    Great shows.
    Ironically, when I was the music critic for my college paper, I panned “Low Budget” when it was released just prior to their show on campus. I’ve since changed my mind. I think it’s the only time I ever have. I love it now.
    John “Cougar” Mellencamp opened and he was great. They were touring to promote their first album. “I Need a Lover” was beginning to receive airplay at the time.

    Liked by 1 person

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