No one expects songs — even rock songs — to be written in stone. They are wonderfully malleable things, capable of being molded into countless shapes and moods. A musician like Thelonious Monk would recast his songs to meet the talents of his musicians, and cover versions often bring out their unexpected shades of meaning.
And Ray Davies, one of the finest songwriters of the last 50 years, is certainly no stranger to recycling material: 1969’s “Arthur,” the Kinks’ soundtrack to a never-realized television show, is a classic of self-plagiarism — every track mirrors an earlier Kinks song. But his show at the Orpheum Theater Saturday night, in support of his new Decca release “The Kinks Choral Collection by Ray Davies,” was a frustrating exercise in both how — and how not to — rework material.
Certainly, Kinks songs are ripe for choral reworking. One of the lesser-known aspects of the Kinks’ catalog are the song’s innovative backing vocal arrangements. Unfortunately, it often seemed that little thought went into incorporating the 28-voice Vox Society Choir, which was rarely fully integrated into the songs. They worked wonderfully on “Shangri-La,” their massed cathedral voices emphasizing the song’s mocking suburban ethos where paying off your debts and renting a TV and a radio are one man’s idea of Eden. They’re less successful on “Victoria,” although their crescendo declamation of “Land of Hope and Gloria” is almost worth the price of admission.
All too often the chorus was used to simply echo the already existing vocal parts or repeat the lyrics’ call-and-response style. In both cases, if feels as though the only reason they’re on stage is to add a sense of bigness, turning the songs top heavy in the former case and cluttered in the latter. Davies is at heart a miniaturist, a sensibility that the choir often blunts. In the case of “Autumn Almanac” and the suite of songs from “Village Green Preservation Society,” the songs were flattened out by the choir, losing their delicacy. And too many times, the effect was like the episode of “The Simpsons” where Bart replaced the hymnal with Iron Butterfly’s “In A Gadda Da Vida,” only without the wit. (For an example of how this can be done, check out Petra Haden’s wonderful “Sings ‘The Who Sell Out’,” where the arrangements re-imagine the songs on an almost molecular level.)
The single best performance of the evening strayed furthest from the original: the hushed, a capella version of “See My Friends.” The melody was slightly reworked (with Davies’ vocal in the middle eight taking on a lovely, Sinatra-esque croon) and the chorus underscored the loneliness of the singer. If only the rest of the rearrangements were done with the same thoughtfulness.
The opening set was much more successful. Sitting on a stool alongside guitarist Bill Shanley, the early going presented Davies at his most charming — a jaunty raconteur with an arch sense of humor. It lets you hear how his songwriting has changed over the years, moving from the character studies casting a sharp eye at post-war England to the more personal observations of “In A Moment” and “Hymn For a New Age.” While the choral versions felt like needless tinkering with a legacy — the work of a musician looking for a way to stay in the spotlight — these songs reminded his audience that Davies remains a vital and viable artist who still has something to say.
Davis, accompanied by the Dessoff Chamber Choir, plays New York’s Town Hall on Nov. 19 and 20.