Houston’s Chronicles Top Ten best albums of 2014:
“American Roots and Machines,” Craig Kinsey: There’s beauty in chaos, Kinsey seems to be saying with his forceful piece of work, which unleashes punk, folk, rock and gypsy – in sound as well as spirit. Kinsey has a distinct vocal tone that punctuates every line of every song. By Joey Guerra;
Craig Kinsey’s “American Roots and Machines” is Just What the Dr. Ordered
“The Good!” screamed the M.C.
“REVEREND!” responded the crowd.
With all the zeal of a religious service, the Good Reverend himself, Craig Kinsey, launched right into “Here Comes the Party” and followed it up with a version of the Rolling Stones’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” —dedicated to Kinsey’s father—in a wonderfully weird mash-up of Motown and punk. The stage was bombarded with members of Houston’s premier burlesque group, “Dem Damn Dames,” and balloons and confetti were scattered among the faithful, along with an explosion of bralettes, wigs and rhumba panties.
Despite the fact you could feel sweat rolling down the small of your back in the smoky, incense-filled club, and that it was a relief to have a cigarette on the balcony in the sweltering Houston night, people milled giddily around, clapping their hands on each other’s shoulders, smiling shit-eating grins. Even the bartender, leaning toward you with a conspiratorial smile, thought he knew you. It was like fellowship at a church service, aside from the pungent pot aroma and scantily clad women, and exactly what Kinsey wanted for his birthday party/CD release of “American Roots and Machines.”
The manic over-stimulation of the night—where one second you’d be sharing a drink with someone and the next, they would be pulled onstage to perform amateur burlesque—included the pristine voice of an opera singer, Alicia Gianni, who sang an aria during Kinsey’s signature drinking chant, ‘Puccini’s Drunk Again.’ Even Jack Massing, one of the Art Guys, ran on stage to ironically request “Freebird.”
One of the more interesting distractions was the art installation of an over-sized robin’s nest with piñata-like eggs by Heath Brodie, an artist who goes by the name “Journey Through.” His environmental sculptures are meant to be enjoyed—and destroyed—by those who venture through the installation. Although one or two eggs were smashed open, the majority of the crowd never did see what emerged, though I suspect it was Kinsey-inspired swag, like the t-shirt that boldly proclaimed, “I’m not moving to Austin!”
While Kinsey played a number of well-known and loved crowd pleasers, the party was to herald his new album, “American Roots and Machines.” The album, replete with call and response anthems, classic blues mixed with punk and ample gospel choir riffs, also includes the 14-minutes-long, “Gettysburg.” The battles, the nuances, the whole love/hate thing Kinsey has going on with America in general is churned out in this song. If you missed the show this past Saturday, July 26th, the least you can do is listen to “American Roots and Machines,” which mirrors a live show in all its frenzied glory.
Text by Sarah Gajkowski
‘American Roots and Machines’
Craig Kinsey (Splice Records)
4 stars out of 5
Don’t try to pigeonhole the music of Craig Kinsey. After all, Kinsey once lived as an ascetic monk in the Ozark Mountains and cites influences as varied as Mozart, Charlie Chaplin, AC/DC, Tom Waits, Bill Monroe and Lighting Sam Hopkins. Given all that, what makes you think it would be easy to classify the tunes on “American Roots and Machines”?
“When I entered (the monastery), I thought I would be there for the rest of my life,” Kinsey says. “Even today, I’m still part of the monastery. Musicianship is a doorway to following the path of to a higher calling. That world and the world of my stage show, to me, are one and the same thing. They both come from the same ecstatic root, deep within the human psyche.”
Kinsey earned his stripes in medicine show-ish outfit Sideshow Tramps but really comes into his own as a solo performer on this 11-track gem. From rollicking opener “Dissatisfied” to 14-minute opus “Gettyburg,” Kinsey impresses at every turn.
Additional standouts include “Puccini’s Drunk Again,” “I’m Not Part of a Scene,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Say, Jesus (A Homeless Man Talks to Jesus)” and “Credits.” Good stuff. (Jeffrey Sisk)
Craig Kinsey Studies Hard on American Roots and Machines
I don’t really feel that it’s right to criticize Craig Kinsey’s American Roots and Machines as an album. It doesn’t really feel like one aside from the fact that it is a CD that goes round and plays music. Instead, Kinsey has gone to great lengths to build a stage in your mind, and the record plays more like a film for the ears.
One of the keenest sentiments expressed on the album comes from “I’m Not Part of a Scene.” It’s a raging, hard rockabilly rant against norms and genres and his refusal to be a part of either. Honestly it’s a bit juvenile, though eloquently expressed, and also completely sincere. Never let it be said that Kinsey is afraid to dance outside of his comfort zone.
Song styles on Machines run from pure Southern gospel to straight blues and even into the occasional rock piece. Kinsey even pulls out aspects of opera on the brief but fun “Puccini’s Drunk Again,” which frankly scans closer to Kurt Weill to these ears. But that might actually be the joke, and maybe I’m too thick to get it.
As the title suggests, most of what you hear is a microcosm of the late 1960s in pop music. It’s almost like Kinsey has borrowed a phone booth to bring us a presentation for Bill and Ted’s music history class, albeit only in one very narrow area.
This is both the record’s strength and its weakness: what is said is pretty boring in most parts, but how it’s said is amazing.
The music is huge. Just big all around. Even in the rare moments when it’s just Kinsey singing by himself, he has a presence akin to the Ozzy in the quiet parts of “War Pigs.” Mostly, though, songs are elaborate big-band affairs that enhance the comparison to a big-budget Broadway cast more than just musicians in the studio.
And Kinsey is a truly gifted lyricist. I could cite a hundred great lines, but I’ll throw out my favorite from “American Chant”:
Man spreads his dominion like ants take the dead
And created machines of goodness and dread
I meant what I said when I made an allusion to “War Pigs,” but there’s a downside to that too. No matter how brilliant and cutting his lyrics may be, Kinsey honestly isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said before. Too often he draws from the worst of Dylan, when Bob was in the throes of rediscovering his faith or pumping out his most bitter breakup tunes. Though brokenheartedness forms a big theme on the album, it’s a rusty, imprecise thing more akin to an acoustic version of ’90s nu-metal ballads than the great poets at the birth of rock.
His politics are often as tired, saying things people said 50 years ago as battle cries that have now become the Facebook rantings of your burnt out hippie uncle. If you’re looking for a preacher to tell you something you already know in the best way possible Kinsey is your guy.
Only on “Say Jesus (A Homeless Man Talks to Jesus)” does Kinsey really come into the modern world looking at the nature of America, faith and fairness. It’s a great song that has the manic energy of a Charles Manson tune, but crafted with a master’s skill. Kinsey sadly laments that he knows Jesus went through what the down and outs know now, but that times have changed since then. It’s a different game. Oddly, in that confused, beautiful moment Kinsey brings the hammer down the hardest.
The elephant in the room is “Gettysburg.” It’s definitely the most ambitious song ever attempted by a Houston artist, and though being drug through its 14-minute length is a challenge there’s no arguing Kinsey made something unique and powerful.
It’s a meandering history of the Civil War told from the perspectives of everyone from President Lincoln to a Southern boy looking to prove his manhood in battle. I’m no Civil War buff, but I’ve read enough Cracked articles on the subject to pick out some of the clever bits or weird trivia that Kinsey drops in, and as an educational song alone it has its worth.
As I said, it drags, lacking the operatic acts that get Jim Steinman through similar monsters. What it loss in seamless elegance, though, it makes up for with Kinsey’s unique voice and gift for language. He’ll turn a phrase on a dime and hit you with something so perfect it’ll leave a bruise. It’s the sort of song that hasn’t been seen since “Ballad of the Alamo” or “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”.
“Gettysburg” is less hooky and far more daring and experimental, though. It’s a brave song, and for the most part belongs to a brave album with points of greatness to fall in love with.
Craig Kinsey brings smart, serious sounds to shows
Houston Chronicle, By Andrew Dansby | July 23, 2014
On his new album, “American Roots and Machines,” Craig Kinsey strikes a balance between chaos and control.
Kinsey says this comes about through his working manner when recording. He brings his collaborators into the studio and diligently records the music for each song. “It’s very sober,” he says, “very serious.”
Once the music has been captured to his satisfaction, Kinsey brings in the choir and breaks out the drinks. The resulting songs are impeccably played and punctuated by joyous rough-hewn vocal parts that twitch with the excitement of shared experience. Kinsey’s brand of frenzied folk music is meant to turn listeners into singers.
“That’s what I’m trying to convey,” he says. “The idea of this end-of-the-night gathering where random people show up drunk and start singing. That, to me, is what playing music is about.”
His music was that way when he played with the much-loved Sideshow Tramps. And Kinsey has carried that sound over into his solo work. His songs are full of deep thoughts and intertwined themes. Discussing one song in particular, he pulls in Joseph Campbell, Darth Vader and Friedrich Nietzsche as reference points. The album’s title serves as its over-arching theme. Kinsey is interested in origins, so he bores deep into history – of music, culture, politics. But he doesn’t ignore the 21st century. “I rely on my technology as much as anybody else,” he says, holding up an iPhone.
The album has the quality of a spiritual travelogue. It opens with agitation in the form of “Dissatisfied,” a damning song in which America is cast as a petulant and greedy being. The volume rises on the next song in which Kinsey asks, “What is it that you want?” The album gradually steers into quieter, more searching places before arriving at “Gettysburg,” a 14-minute piece Kinsey calls “a three-act play disguised as a song.”
The frontman of Sideshow Tramps, Kinsey solo assembles influences as vast as hard rock and gospel into a gypsy-fueled album that takes on political, historical and social commentary with passion and eloquence. Even though many of the songs take on familiar genres, the musical-esque and unique approach Kinsey applies to blues, rockabilly and folk songs make this an instantly enjoyable listen.
Craig Kinsey, American Roots and Machines
There’s a darkness to America, to our history. It’s a stark, surprising contrast to a lot of our country’s accepted story, because we’ve managed to brand ourselves as this great, shining city on a hill, something other countries should aspire to emulate, to be. And yet, when you scrape away that surface layer of gleaming rah-rah Americanism, there’s a lot of awful, terrible things we’ve done as a country (to others and to ourselves) to get to where we are. I don’t say this because I somehow hate the nation I call home, mind you; far from it. But I figure that if we want to truly be that country other countries want to emulate, we should be honest with ourselves and acknowledge, even embrace, those dark parts of our collective story. Obviously, it’s not an easy thing to hear, or even think about. Ironically, the medium that often seems to speak most to that stuff is rootsy, countryish, folky music; I’m not even talking about protest-folkies, but about the music that comes from deeper back in the woods, where story-songs can be grim and bleak and truthful all at the same time. It’s a tradition that goes back to Europe, at the least, and probably a lot further back than that. Once upon a time, we relied on musicians to tell us things we needed to hear; important things, facts and realities embellished in verse, as they roamed from town to town, spreading their news in the only way then possible. Those days are long, long gone, naturally, but listening to American Roots and Machines, the latest release from Sideshow Tramps frontman Craig Kinsey, I find myself thinking about those times and that kind of music, because at its heart, that’s what this album’s about. It’s hard not to see Kinsey as an heir to that same tradition, and I suspect he thinks the same, given the line “Men make sense of our world / In sacred hymns and rhymes”, in the 14-minute-long “Gettysburg”. Throughout the album, Kinsey rambles across the whole American landscape, historical and current, casting a skeptical, cautious eye at the wonders of our modern-day world. The America of today that he shows us is a place where technology does awesome, amazing things but where people still feel like they’re missing something, like there’s a hole in their souls. That kicks in right at the start with “Dissatisfied,” which is an ode to a woman who’s got everything but wants something else beyond the life envisioned for her, and it continues on through the swinging rock of “What Is It That You Want?” The whole theme comes into sharp focus on “American Chant,” a down-in-the-holler dirge that tells the story of this country in three-and-a-half minutes of voices and verse and ends on a sobering note, predicting that our post-Industrial Age world will eventually hurl itself back to the Stone Age. It’s pretty impressive, tying together the highs and lows of our evolution as a people and a nation and seemingly yearning for a way to step back to a simpler, less digitized, disconnected era. I’m tempted to label “Chant” as the absolute high point of American Roots and Machines, but it’s a tough call between that and the track that seems destined to be Kinsey’s masterwork, the aforementioned “Gettysburg”. “Chant” is amazing for its breadth, but “Gettysburg” is equally amazing for its focus, building a well-constructed, fully-formed story around the Battle of Gettysburg and making a definite point about man and his capacity both for hatred and for change in the process. One of the hardest, trickiest things for a songwriter to tackle is to try to take a historical event and adapt it into a song; to put it bluntly, odds are good you’re going to fuck it up. Here, though, Kinsey’s succeeded pretty admirably, encapsulating the Civil War in one longish tune that brings to mind Irish folk songs about The Troubles, where “did-they-really-exist?” characters stand in for the masses of people who feel the pain of the fight. It cements Kinsey as a bona-fide troubadour, at least in my mind, a storyteller who can spin a tale in any format he chooses. As might be expected from the ultra-talented cast of friends and compatriots Kinsey’s dragged along for the ride — which includes The Suffers’ Kam Franklin, Chase Hamblin, fellow tramp Geoffrey Muller, The Suspects’ Chuy Terrazas, Southern Backtones’ Hank Schyma, and Two Star Symphony’s Jerry Ochoa, among others — the album shines on the musical side of things, as well. Each track dances nimbly from one genre to another, never settling down for long, from the arena-rock, Marshall stacks sound of “What Is It That You Want?”, which comes off like Tom Petty as covered by Fountains of Wayne, to the crashing, chaotic burst of opera in “Puccini’s Drunk Again” (featuring an honest-to-God aria, of course), to the full-on gospel of “New World Now,” which sees Kinsey playing his part as the preacher and doing a call-and-response with choir and congregation before smoothly shifting into the full arrangement. There’s also “I’m Not Part Of A Scene,” which is all stomping, jagged-edged, start-stop boogie, complete with blasting horns and backing gang vocals, the gritty, downhome blues of “Broke and Hungry,” and the friendly-yet-defiant, Latin-tinged closer “Credits,” which is about the end of a movie but could stand in for the end of anything, pretty much, from a relationship to the world. The playing’s especially jaw-dropping on “Say, Jesus (A Homeless Man Talks To Jesus),” a fragile, contemplatively bitter little chunk of walking blues that segues into a gorgeous, gorgeous turn with banjo and fiddle, and “To Kill A Mockingbird,” which echoes Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and gently ambles along as the narrator tries to understand how things could have gone the way they have. All in all, American Roots and Machines is less an “album” and more a snapshot of one of Kinsey’s legendarily varied, anything-goes live shows. Taken as a whole, this is one hell of a piece of work; it’s magnificent, frankly, and a little hard to even take in all at once (I recommend headphones, especially if you want to catch the little bits like the mouth-harp lurking off to the left side on “Dissatisfied”). And not only is it great as an album, but it’s great as a collaborative effort for the players involve, people who hail from every corner of Houston’s diverse music scene. I found myself chuckling and shaking my head at Kinsey’s declaration that he’s not part of the scene, because he most certainly is — with this album, in fact, he demonstrates that he’s one of the scene’s cornerstones, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of, no way -
By Konrad Zooke
I have been a fan of Craig Kinsey since his early days with the Medicine Show, who eventually came to be known as the Sideshow Tramps. Craig Kinsey has always been a master showman, and has always had the ability to bring a crowd to a frenzy. His songs have poetic and witty lyrics that tell a story and keep you laughing although they may be dark in nature.
Earlier this year, Craig Kinsey released his second solo album by the name of American Roots and Machines, I heard him talking about this project for quite some time, and was very excited to hear what he had come up with.
His first solo album THE BURDENER was quite a master piece and one of my favorite to listen to, so I was expecting no less than the same from this collection of songs.
The album begins up close and personal with a couple songs about young ladies with great expectations. The first track, Dissatisfied, is a somber acoustic track with great backing vocals. It takes you for a walk with a girl who has it all, but feels nothing, not even the blood of God is enough for her which is a great leading tone for track two which simply asks, WHAT IS IT THAT YOU WANT?
On this track he picks up the pace with drums and some distorted guitar. Track 3 is called I’M NOT PART OF THE SCENE. This is an anthem for all musicians. It’s a song that declares the independence from popular culture, and embraces doing things from the heart, and and tells us to remove ourselves from the herd mentality.
With NEW WORLD NOW, Craig takes us to Church gives the album an Andrew Lloyd Webber – safe sanctuary feel of revolution and spirituality, Craig gives his sermon and the people sing along, and its all quite majestic and moving. He then returns to a mellow Americana approach on the next couple of tracks.
On TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD he gives a feel of Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen, on AMERICAN CHANT I can smell the iron of the railroad spikes covered in blood and sweat. Craig then gives us the blues on BROKE AND HUNGRY, he paints a picture of the less fortunate which he carries on to the following track SAY, JESUS (A BLACK MAN TALKS TO JESUS).
There is plenty of compassion in these little wake up calls. The next track GETTYSBURG is a short history lesson and a long song but worth the listen. Finally the album closes with CREDITS, which drips with gulf coast flavor, laced with accordion, washboard, and a Spanish chorus, closing this project just perfectly, bringing it all back home.
Craig Kinsey has yet again given my ears something good to swallow. As usual he has brought together a great group of musicians and friends for a great effort at taking you to that other place we all love to go. There will be links bellow to refer you where to go and catch him live or purchase his CD. Anything that he is associated with is worth giving a chance.