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.
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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 loses 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 releases American Roots and Machines Saturday, July 26 at Fitzgerald's with Buxton, The Happen-Ins, Kam Franklin and Dem Damn Dames.
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