Jon Varley’s latest solo release is one of those albums that’s easily mistaken for old music. Right down to the buzzing, lo-fi production, it sounds like its creator should sport a mop-top haircut and roam the streets of North London wearing a suit with comically wide lapels. Varley—who’s from Victoria, BC, Canada and plays with the bands Painted Fruits and Novel—knows this and readily admits it. So much so, in fact, that he named his album The Missing Kink, both a pun and a reference to the influence of the Kinks.
Some songs seem transported directly from the instruments and mouths of the Kinks or their contemporaries. On “Won’t Forget Why,” Varley sounds like the third Davies brother on his sunniest day (before the band earned the epithet, “the original punks”), singing in an expressive and scratchy voice while a chorus of “ahs” descends behind him. In “For Whom I Have Eyes,” a sweet love song, the roaming bass and guitar transparently borrow pieces of blues, country, folk, and the other seeds of rock in the way that the Kinks did, though they did it at a time when that was a fresher act. Varley pieces them together with such a light and natural, though, that he makes it feel fresh again.
The Missing Kink fits in with the many modern-day adaptations that have breathed new life into old things—to take a few examples from film, 10 Things I Hate About You for Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and Gnomeo and Juliet (har, har). In “Roll Drum,” the shortest but one of the sweetest on the album, Varley talks about his love of smoking, a topic the Kinks and their contemporaries never covered in exactly this way, but in a style that they did. Over music that slides around in the faintly psychedelic way of the Kinks’ “See My Friend,” he sings, “I’ve been smoking all day long / Please don’t tell me that it’s wrong,” and later, “Burns so hot / Burns so sweet / Finding holes all in my sheets.” The lyrics are strictly the stuff of today, and, set against a round of “ooh ooh, la la la la” and the clean, bright guitar of the early- to mid-‘60s, they are undeniably charming and anything but stale.
Like “Roll Drum,” many of Varley’s best songs are ones that have updated past themes, often in a tongue-and-cheek way. “Plaster Smile, etc.” for example, is the perfect contemporary love song about something we can all relate to: falling for a barista. “Nice neck tattoo,” Varley sings,“Is it new? / Oh, she’s a vegan / What book are you reading?” Later, there’s a reference to a haircut with shaved sides, vintage glasses, and an unfriendly demeanor. It’s not only funny and on-point, but with its jazzy walking bass line and jangling guitars, it’s just plain good as well.
It also underscores an important distinction: Varley isn’t aiming to move backward in that nostalgic, stuck way that old-sounding music often does; instead he just operates in the modes of the past to create something good for today. And The Missing Kink is indeed so good for today that you might even listen to it again tomorrow.