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Dark Americana Bandleader Mark Sinnis Revisits His Old Haunts Upstate

Today’s Halloween episode concerns an eerie coincidence in the career of dark Americana crooner Mark Sinnis. You can watch the video – or get the scoop here if you’re multitasking. See, a few years back, Sinnis was shooting video in an upstate New York cemetery. Needing some headstone imagery, he lay down on a random grave. Later, while editing the footage, he was stunned to discover that Mary Ann Slauson, the woman interred there, died on Sinnis’ birthday…in 1846. Pure chance, a message from the great beyond, or a past-life revelation? To this day, Sinnis isn’t sure – but he got a song out of it.

Now based in North Carolina, he’s regrouping his epic Hudson Valley band 825 for a couple of pre-Halloween weekend shows on Oct 28 at 8 PM and then on Sunday afternoon, Oct 29 at 4 PM at Sue’s Sunset House in Peekskill; cover is $5. If you’re wondering what relevance those shows could have for residents of the five boroughs, the venue couldn’t be easier to get to – it’s about a block north of the Peekskill Metro-North station. Be aware that the last train back to Manhattan  Saturday night leaves at half past eleven, with a transfer at Croton-Harmon. You can also catch a nonstop train back to Grand Central an  hour earlier. 

Sinnis and the band played a weekend stand there this past summer, without any rehearsal…and slayed. These guys know his material inside out. Trumpeters Lee Compton and Brian Aspinwall gave some of the material a mariachi feel, when Aspinwall wasn’t playing pedal steel on the more oldschool C&W numbers, or keys as well on a couple of the more subdued tunes. Drummer Michael Lillard kept a swinging country shuffle or honkytonk sway going; bassist Mike Gross took some serpentine leads as the Saturday night show got crazier.

Multi-instrumentalist Stephen Gara started off both shows on banjo but also played jawbone and finally bagpipe toward the end. Lead guitarist W.D. Fortay – formerly known as Smokey Chipotle – aired out his vast assortment of classic country, rockabilly and retro rock licks, playing a couple of gorgeous hollowbody Guild models through an old Fender tube amp with the reverb way up.

Sinnis saved the weekend’s best song, Tough Love Is All She’s Got – a propulsive, corrosively vindictive minor-key number – for the Sunday show. One of the weekend’s few covers, Merle Travis’ Sixteen Tons was also reinvented as a revenge song with an inventive, oldtime chain-gang blues arrangement. Otherwise, Sinnis’ song titles pretty much speak for themselves: The Undertaker in My Rearview Mirror, One Red Rose Among the Dying Leaves, and I’ll Have Another Drink of Whiskey (‘Cause Death Is Not So Faraway), to name just three. It’s hard to remember a crowd having so much fun watching a band sing about imminent doom and unrelenting despair. Although with Sinnis, he’ll always have another song about death, but whiskey is not that faraway.

A word about the venue: it’s something straight out of a David Lynch film, a real oldschool upstate New York roadhouse. Local characters gather to watch football and the later it gets, the stranger the clientele becomes (the football crowd tends to filter out after the game ends). The one concession to the 21st century is the microbrew selection; the kitchen serves burgers, fries and such. Service is laid-back and unpretentious, as you would expect at a place like this. The onion rings are highly recommended: homemade, thick, haphazardly hand-cut and fried to a crispy brown crunch in generous amounts of batter. They go well with Tabasco.

Dark Crooner Mark Sinnis Releases His Catchiest, Hardest Country Record

There’s not a little irony in that baritone crooner Mark Sinnis’ catchiest and hardest country record comes out of the most difficult and arguably most complicated time in his life as a recording artist. His latest album, One Red Rose Among the Dying Leaves – streaming at Spotify – picks up the doomed tangent he began in 2012 with It’s Been a Long Cold Hard Lonely Winter. At that point, his marriage was on life support this one traces the despair that followed in its wake, yet paradoxically it’s Sinnis’ most hopeful album ever. Talk about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

As you might expect from Sinnis’ most traditional country album, there’s plenty of reverence for and references to to a century of tradition. The Elvis homage In Tupelo opens it; a homage to New York’s one and only country station, 1050 WHN, which aired at that frequency on the AM dial from 1941 to 1987, closes it on a similarly nostalgic note.

In between, there’s On This Thanksgiving Day, a cruel Johnny Cash-flavored anthem chronicling Sinnis’ departure/eviction from his Westchester home (he’s since resettled in North Carolina). There’s the towering, angst-fueled, Orbison-esque bolero that serves as the album’s title traack, inspired by an actual flower Sinnis discovered the day he moved out of his home in the frigid winter of 2014. It graces the album’s back cover.

Why Should I Cry Over You is a brisk, propulsive minor-key honkytonk blues number. There are a couple of older songs dating from Sinnis’ days fronting gothic-tinged art rock band Ninth House, notably the haunting When the Sun Bows to the Moon – “You create your own atmosphere, breathe your own tainted air” – and the creeping, low-key, doomed Jealousy.

There’s surprisingly upbeat, optimistic material here too. Love, Love Love (You’re Such a Four Letter Word) is a funny and wickedly catchy update on Don Gibson-style 1960s country-pop. Five Days, Seven Nights looks back to the roots of alt-country and bands like the Mekons, but with more finesse. Where It All Ends, a 70s style country ballad, serves as the album’s quietly triumphant coda.

Siting at the Heartbreak Saloon wouldn’t be out of place in the classic-era Merle Haggard songbook. And the album’s best song, Tough Love Is All She’s Got, is one of the all-time greatest kiss-off anthems ever written. See, on the surface, this retro chick – as he tells it, Sinnis’ ex – looks like a classic car from 1956 or so. But wait – pop the hood! Fans of classic country from Lefty Frizzell, to Waylon and Willie, to Jack Grace will love this album A period-perfect and smart, tersely recorded performance from multi-instrumentalists Stephen Gara-  who plays everything from banjo to bagpipes – ass well as W. D. Fortay on lead guitar, Ken Lockwood on fiddle, Brian Aspinwall on pedal steel and trumpet, Lee Compton on lead trumpet, Mike Gross on bass and Michael Lillard on drums.

Mark Sinnis Brings His Gloomy Honkytonk Songs Back to His Old East Village Haunts

One consequence of the brain drain continuing to pour out of this city’s five boroughs is that in order to see some of the best musicians who’ve been priced out by the real estate bubble, you have to go where they are. So it was good to be able to catch longtime downtown NYC presence and charismatic Nashville gothic crooner Mark Sinnis playing a marathon gig at the refreshingly laid-back Mohansic Grill & Lounge in Yorktown Heights, up in Westchester, back in November. The show was like one of those old-fashioned tent revival style C&W extravaganzas from the 1950s, except with just one band, serenading an enthusiastic Saturday night crowd for well over two hours. Sinnis and his group 825 return to his old East Village stomping grounds, upstairs at 2A at 10 PM on Feb 15 as part of impresario/bandleader/genius guitarist Tom Clark‘s weekly Sunday American shindig.

The Yorktown Heights gig was on the back porch of a restaurant overlooking a golf course, not such a strange place to see a band up that way as it might seem. And the band was tremendous. Lead guitarist James “Smokey Chipotle” Brown locked in on some classic honkytonk harmonies with pedal steel player Brian Aspinwall when the two weren’t involved in high-voltage musical banter. Other times, Aspinwall would anchor the sound with high lonesome washes and wails as Senor Chipotle spun from wry hillbilly boogie licks, to eerie David Lynch twang, to chicken-scratch Johnny Cash rhythm or ringing, clanging Bakersfield riffage. Bassist John Goldberg held the rig to the road as drummer Michael Lillard kept the wheels spinning with every classic country shuffle beat ever invented, trumpeter Lee Compton adding both mariachi flair and a mournful, funereal New Orleans touch, often in tandem with a bluesy harmonica player who was new to the band.

Sinnis delivered the songs in his brooding baritone. Much as this band can hold their own with any other classic honkytonk crew out there, what distinguishes his Nashville gothic from, say, Nick Cave, or Roy Orbison, is that he really lets the band cut loose: several of the numbers went on for a solid six or seven minutes, with plenty of time for solos from pretty much everybody in the group. His lyrics mine a classic Americana vernacular full of doom and dread: funeral trains emerging into the dawn, ill-fated relationships, ghosts and faded memories of fleetingly good times now gone forever. And love affairs gone straight to hell, taking shape via slow, opiated dirges, bitter shuffle grooves or grimly romping numbers like one of the centerpieces of the early set, Mistaken for Love.

Many of the night’s hardest-hitting numbers – the angst-fueled funeral train anthem Cold Night in December, the booze-drenched Wine and Whiskey and the Devil Makes Three, and It’s Been a Long Cold Hard Lonely Winter – appear on his latest album with this band. Some of the unexpectedly quieter material, strangely enough, was taken from his extensive back catalog with dark art-rock band Ninth House, a unit Sinnis has fronted since the late 90s and has pulled deeper and deeper into Americana in recent years. He also brought out a couple of excellent new songs, one a brooding, manic-depressive bolero, another a morose honkytonk breakup ballad. All this gives you an idea of what to expect this Sunday: classic ideas and riffs updated for the here and now, with an unending gloom. Tom Clark’s Sunday nights at 2A draw a decent crowd and an A-list of NYC Americana talent – Amy Allison played a rare full-band show with LA cult favorite Don Heffington there last week, for example – but deserve an even wider audience and a better night than they have. Sinnis and 825 ought to bring it this Sunday.

Dark Country Crooner Mark Sinnis Puts Out His Most Haunting Album

Purists complain when their favorite style of music changes. Sometimes they have a point – drum machines and bling-bling hip-hop product placements in country music? Barf.

But consider: if a style doesn’t change, that means it’s dead. Mark Sinnis personifies the cutting edge in this era’s country music, aware of tradition and immersed in it yet taking it to genuinely exciting new places. While his new album It’s Been a Long Cold Hard Lonely Winter (streaming at Spotify) is his deepest immersion in hard honkytonk, he also sounds like no other artist in country music anywhere. It’s what you get from a guy who grew up on the classics – Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, most obviously – but as a musician, cut his teeth playing new wave and gothic rock. Doktor John of the Aquarian called his music”cemetery and western,” and the term stuck. It’s an apt way to describe Sinnis’s doomed vision and individualistic blend of classic C&W and Nashville gothic.

It’s a long album, well over an hour’s worth of music, almost unthinkable in today’s world. Themes of drinking to kill the pain, death and life beyond the grave recur throughout it. Sinnis’ resonant baritone, always a strength, has never been more soulful or expressive, or more highly nuanced. He was good fifteen years ago fronting ferocious dark rockers Ninth House – who’ve been through a million lineup changes, and are still more or less active – but he’s great now.

Lee Compton’s trumpet and Brian Aspinwall’s pedal steel team up to give the album’s Texas shuffle of a title track an ominous southwestern gothic touch. Sinnis sings Wine and Whiskey and the Devil Makes Three with George Jones inflections without making it blatantly derivative. Interestingly, Aspinwall’s mellow steel work gives a cover of the Ernest Tubb honkytonk hit Driving Nails in My Coffin an almost Hawaiian feel.

Six Feet from Eternity opens with the story of Mary Ann Slouson, who died at age thirty on August 25, 1854 – Sinnis’ birthday. A World with No Tomorrow, unlike what the title would suggest, is optimistic – with its slow Memphis soul groove, jaunty trumpet and unexpectedly biting garage rock guitar from virtuoso Smokey Chipotle (who colors the rest of the album with classic honkytonk licks straight out of 1962), it seems Sinnis got the visitation from his pal on the other side that he was hoping for.

Sitting at the Heartbreak Saloon has a Tex-Mex sway and the feel of a Conway Twitty hit fromthe 70s with better production values and a more boozy milieu. Sunday Mourning Train works a period-perfect grim 1968-style Johnny Cash chunk-ka-chunk shuffle. Cemeteries and Centuries broodinglyand hypnotically contemplates “Sobering realities,” as Sinnis puts it, “Like waiting for a train, one by one we go.” A lingering, slow cover of the George Jones classic He Stopped Loving Her Today revisits that ambience a little later on, fueled by Zach Ingram’s funeral parlor organ.

On a Cold Night in December sets a haunting overnight train narrative to a loping southwestern gothic beat. Open Road of Memories has a bittersweet, nocturnal bounce, a mid 60’s-style Nashville September song. Down Old Route Number Nine makes a dirge out of Merle Travis Sixteen Tons-style country blues, swaying along with Stephen Gara’s resolute banjo. And Sinnis puts an update on Johnny Cash spoken-word pieces from the 60s with The Angel of Death. The album winds up with another Cash soundalike, In Harmony, a catchy if utterly morbid coda that makes uneasy peace with the inevitability of the grave. There are also a couple of remakes of older Sinnis songs here: a surprisingly gentle take of the corrosive kiss-off anthem Mistaken for Love, and a lustrous version of the Ninth House classic Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me. You’ll see this here again in a few days on the Best Albums of 2014 page.