Dean Owens “Pictures” (ft Neilson Hubbard and Will Kimbrough)

Songboy Records, 2023

From East Lothian via East Nashville, Owens reunites with long-term collaborators to deliver eleven songs written during the pandemic years.

artwork for Dean Owens album 'Pictures".There would be little exaggeration in suggesting that Dean Owens is possibly one of the hardest-working artists on the americana music scene at the moment as he releases his second album of this year and his third in just over eighteen months. Now, whereas the last two releases ‘Sinner’s Shrine’, and its follow-up ‘El Tiradito’, which came out during this summer were both collaborations with members of the much-lauded exponents of ‘desert noir’, Calexico, this new album sees Owens re-connect with Neilson Hubbard and Will Kimbrough who together oversaw the production of previous albums ‘Into The Sea’, (2015) and ‘Southern Wind’, (2018)  the title track of the latter winning the song of the year award at the UK Americana Music Association Awards in 2019. More recently, Owens has been the recipient of the Americana UK’s readers ‘Best UK Americana Act’ for the last two years, so the release of a new album of material written during the pandemic is understandably viewed with much excitement and anticipation.

The first three numbers of ‘Pictures’, immediately highlights the albums reflective melancholic theme, opening with ‘Hills Of Home’, which finds Owens reminiscing of the streets where he grew up and those formative years where his dreams first started to take shape as he sings “it was all my playground, where I listened to the radio, planning my way out”, and later “When I first heard The Big Music”, a possible reference to Mike Scott and The Waterboys. ‘Pure Magic‘, and ‘Sometime’, follow in a similar vein with Owens’ consistently strong vocal delivery accompanied in the main by just the simple strumming of his acoustic guitar, slow in pace and sparse in arrangement placing the emphasis squarely on the narrative. Across the opening tracks there are moments of lyrical incisiveness where Owens threatens to fully open up with lines such as “Lion tamer and clown that’s me, lion tamer and clown” from track two, but in truth there’s a tendency to be a little too careful not to reveal too much, teasing the listener with a strong lyrical framework that is often lacking in emotional insightfulness to enable it to truly connect.

Track four ‘Staring At The Lid’, sees a significant shift in gear. The arrangement is broader, pedal steel, mandolin and organ supplying a vibrancy and drive to Owens’ melodic delivery all helping to create a more positive vibe, and though there is a slight deceleration in pace to ‘Boxing Shorts’, here the cinematic narrative finds Owens at his very best while the guitar solo from Kimbrough along with the brass section from Scotty Huff helps to create an infectious soulful groove. ‘Great Songs’, gives Owens the chance to demonstrate his whistling prowess and though the narrative is simplistic the refrain is so strong you can’t help but sing along. The momentum is lost slightly with ‘In My Dreams‘. which returns to the sparser arrangement of piano supporting the reflective overtones of lost love before ‘Dalry Cemetery’, lifts proceedings with another powerful example of storytelling from Owens, all wrapped up in a playful accompaniment that provides the perfect conduit.  Next is ‘Buffalo River’, and if you hadn’t picked up on the Ronnie Lane influence over previous tracks it’s impossible to miss here with the mix of pedal steel and mandolin conjuring memories of ‘Slim Chance’, as they weave there way around the irresistible melody. The final two tracks ‘Friend’, and the title track ‘Pictures’, return to the reflective tone supported by a more subtle atmospheric arrangement that works particularly well on the latter.

As with so many songs written during lockdown in early 2020, much of Owens’ latest album ‘Pictures’, focuses on the personal impact and sense of loss that accompanied it. Loss of freedoms, and self-identity, loss of contact and social interaction, loss of well-being and most profoundly loss of life. Throughout this album he has carefully explored his own emotive landscape, revisiting his past, the places and the people that helped shape his life, reflective but never morbid, always believing that the light will return. If there is an issue with this album then it lies in part with the timing, for as we rapidly approach 2024 the ‘stripped back, written in isolation’, pandemic album has become a slightly over-explored concept that has inevitably lost a certain level of impact if not relevance no matter how personal or powerful the narrative. Frustratingly, to these ears Owens has on occasion played too safe with the narrative, especially on the slower stripped-back numbers that offers little new perspective to an already saturated subject matter. In truth this reflective format possibly doesn’t play to his strengths which are probably better suited to being the storyteller rather than baring his soul and being the subject of the story. Having said that, the slightly disjointed feel to the album is spectacularly redeemed by half a dozen tracks that rank among the best of 2023, emphasising both Owens fantastic vocals along with some wonderful melodies, while the excellent musical accompaniment and arrangement from the supporting cast all helps to create a work still worthy of high praise and keep Owens trajectory on an upward curve.

7/10
7/10

About Graeme Tait 125 Articles
Hi. I'm Graeme, a child of the sixties, eldest of three, born into a Forces family. Keen guitar player since my teens, (amateur level only), I have a wide, eclectic taste in music and an album collection that exceeds 5.000. Currently reside in the beautiful city of Lincoln.
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Alan Peatfield

Excellent review as usual Graeme. I’ve listened 3 times now and I thoroughly enjoyed it; for me, probably one more notch on the Richter scale than you. I do agree there approx 6 (7) tracks as good as anything 2023 had to offer … whether they align with your half a dozen is a matter for us to debate!!