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Five for Friday: Songs About America by British Artists

British legend Ray Davies returns next week with a new album that turns the focus away from his home country to the United States. Presenting a vision of our country from the outside in, Americana serves as a bittersweet love letter to the 50 states. The record takes its name – and inspiration – from Davies' 2013 memoir. Songs such as "Poetry" offer an alternately romantic and critical tone. But you wouldn't necessarily know there's anything dour from the sound since Davies, backed by roots veterans the Jayhawks, graces the fare with a lively homespun feel. In honor of his first new work in a decade, we take a look five notable songs about America from British artists.

Ray Davies, "The Great Highway"
"The Great Highway" starts innocently and boisterously, with robust and crunchy guitars in a stop-and start-pattern. The brand-new travelogue feels completely hopeful in its opening moments – evoking the seconds, for instance, before one steps out on a vacation. We see images of Wild West heroes, "college girls with perfect teeth," Technicolor diversity, and couples posing for selfies amid sprouting cities. "Hey!" Davies shouts, and the trip sounds as appealing as a soda-pop commercial. Until, as Davies notes, "reality hit me in the face." What follows isn't necessarily a massive letdown. The song never loses its pep or call-and-response backing vocals, which possess a soulful lilt during the bridge. Instead, Davies finds charm amid fellow dreamers – the roadside diners and lost souls whose highlight of the day comprises a jaunt to the local bar.

The Clash, "I'm So Bored with the U.S.A."
American pop-culture is more omnipresent now than ever. Just check the news feeds on a Sunday morning. Several stories will document how much money American-made movies pull in overseas. But about 40 years ago, punk band the Clash had already had enough. "I'm So Bored with the U.S.A." documents the trio's frustration with all-things stars and stripes. They're fed up with what's on the television ("Yankee detectives"), and also take aim at American foreign policy and our country's treatment of veterans. Whew – the song covers a lot of ground in less than four minutes, and does so with a raspy snarl (courtesy of vocalist Joe Strummer) and a ferocious, rabid-dog guitar bit (courtesy of Mick Jones). Fun fact: Rock n' roll myth claims the tune was originally an anti-love song (titled "I'm So Bored with You") later rewritten by Strummer.

David Bowie, "Young Americans"
Artists have long shown a fascination with the American dream and the contrasts it provides when compared to reality (see Davies, above). Bowie, too, was smitten with the topic for this mid-70s hit. He even copped a sound directly ripped from American soul. Marked by impassioned and groovy sax from David Sanborn, the song appears to be loosely framed around a young couple that may or may not have settled for domesticated life. "We live for just these 20 years/Do we have to die for the 50 more?" Bowie sings through gritted teeth, indicating wedded bliss may not be all that it's cracked up to be. Yet the Thin White Duke soon steps back and references the Watergate era, racial strife, and mounting debt. Maybe the lovers never had a chance. No wonder everyone longs to be "young Americans."

The Pogues, "Fairytale of New York"
A twinkling slow dance, the Christmas-themed "Fairytale of New York" finds the Celtic punks getting romantic and misty-eyed. It's now a holiday standard – you may even hear it in malls during winter months – but also one of the rare anti-holiday holiday songs, commenting more on tough times and depression rather than joy-to-all revelries. Leader Shane MacGowan proves drawn to the lure of the American dream as he tells a tale of Irish immigrants who went to New York in search of fame and fortune. "I could have been someone," MacGowan sings in his trademark drunken rasp. Guest vocalist Kirsty MacColl is ready with the retort: "Well, so could anyone." The back and forth carries the song, which culminates with a hopeful orchestral finale.

Kim Wilde, "Kids in America"
A number of songs on this list seem, if not critical, then a little suspicious of America. So we end on a high note with Kim Wilde's exuberant "Kids in America." Released in 1981, the new-wavy song moves beyond the anger of punk rock with a buoyant exclamation point. Beginning with a pulsating synth line that serves as the rhythmic backbone, Wilde slowly adds ingredients – spacey effects, a wilily guitar – while building toward the shout-along chorus. Try to resist the "whoa-oh's" that follow-up Wilde's mention of the song's title. "Outside a new day is dawning," she sings, before urging youngsters to avoid suburban sprawl for urban vibrancy. The tune is a trifle, sure, but a catchy one that channels the excitement and anticipation of a Friday night out on the town.

April 14, 2017

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