Kevin Kinsella | Great Design
Album review by John Powell
Many people will know Kevin Kinsella from his John Brown’s Body days, where he led the top notch crew through roots reggae songs infused with enough other influences and new ideas to herald the band as reggae’s savior. Kevin has been a mainstay in the Northeast reggae and roots music scene for two decades, also part of the mysterious supergroup 10 ft. Ganja Plant, for a time running I-Town Records, and releasing two solo albums before arriving at Great Design, by far the man’s most interestingly eclectic mix of music. As he said in an interview, he didn’t approach Great Design as an album, but rather as recordings of songs he’d been recently playing. Kevin’s been around long enough to not feel the need to conform, and for that reason each song is in its own right, and for its own reasons, wonderful. For an album called Great Design, however, it never came from a preliminary blueprint for an album.
Kevin also branches out, trying new tools and new songwriting techniques, and while his first solo record, I-Town Revival was a highly slow-paced folk look at childhood and memory, Great Design is a hopeful record based in the present. “All That I Have” is reggae run by a curly synth line. The backing vocals are great, especially when they sing, “Search and you’ll never find.” The chorus is run through Auto-Tune. I know, I know; Kevin Kinsella purists are thinking, What!? Well, yeah, but remember, this is Kevin. He’s incredibly tasteful and tactful and the Auto-Tune actually serves the song, bringing the chorus to a different level, like it’s his spirit singing it. In fact, Auto-Tune never sounded so organic.
“No Battlefield” slows everything down. Quiet synth, both harpsicord-y and twangy, leads into a snare drum role of a beat, like what a militia might hear on the march. The horns are sweet and add punch. Built on layers, the song isn’t reggae’d at all. Kevin’s voice takes on a strained soulful urge. “I’m doing more with less,” he sings. “What we seek is happiness.” Lyrically, it’s clear this song was written for him, a self-reflection and meditation, but because he allows the instrumentation to build around him he takes what could be a singer/songwriter Whatever and turns it into a sweetly humble track.
Kevin has always allowed words of faith to cross his songs. He gets no more forthright than on “Faith”, where he sings, “Let your love and mercy guide you/I got my love/I got my hope in a God that’s great.” The electric guitar is punchy and the rhythm guitar is palm-muted. Built on a groove, it is high-intensity and lyrically a Kevin classic.
A key track is “Lovers in a Time”, an acoustic reggae track with plunky keys and a great guitar lick. Kevin’s voice has always been sincere, but here he’s extremely open and warming. “Come in girl,” he sings, “and satisfy my soul.” Kevin has a knack for love songs, making tired words sound revitalized. I wouldn’t grant him a poetry award, but his ability to say a lot with very little makes “Lovers in a Time” richly re-playable. “I want to raise my hands into the air and shout/’You are my love’,” he adds, and you feel it.
Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” is a song Kevin’s covered live for a while. A studio version appears on Great Design, and slows down the original, adding in lethargic heartbeat-like drums. Vocally, Kevin turns the lyrics into a painful path into fire, teasing new meaning from the words we associate with one of Cash’s more pop-y crossovers.
The song, however, is the weakest link here. First of all, it’s slow and drags on. Secondly, it’s unnecessary. Kevin is a fantastic songwriter and we waited nine years for a new solo album. Plus, it’s succeeded by “Stars”, a graceful original infused with 90’s pop drum n’ bass, something Savage Garden would approve of. “Love ain’t all shackles and chains,” he sings coyly. When he sings, “It’s just you and me,” it’s his own version of “Ring of Fire”, and preferred. Although, then again, why not throw in a cover. As I said, this is Kevin’s songbook approach to album-making.
Whether dancing with reggae grooves or expanding his horizons to all forms of musicality, Kevin has achieved an album that never gets boring, never loses your interest, and never drags on, (no song reaches four minutes). He touches on righteousness, passion, music, and hopefulness, all with ease and confidence. Kevin’s the sort of guy that makes it all look easy, because in his philosophy, it should be.
Bottom line: A wine-tasting of music styling with reggae and roots undercurrents, all behind sincere lyrics from I-Town’s main man.