Leith meets Tucson in a propitious if sometimes lyrically obscure combination.
Dean Owens is no stranger to these pages and no stranger to being highly praised within them. His live shows have been praised as, ‘sunshine and joy’, and he was 2021 AUK British act of the year. He has been lauded as one of the UK’s, ‘most talented songwriters’, whose previously recorded output has been reviewed as, ‘compelling stuff’. In 2019 he garnered the ‘UK Song of the Year Award‘, at the UK Americana Music Association Awards. Irvine Welsh describes Owens as, ‘Scotland’s most engaging and haunting singer songwriter’, and, ‘The pulse of all our lives’. That’s eloquent stuff even for Mr Welsh.
Thankfully there’s not too much to rock the boat here and the new release, ‘Sinner’s Shrine’, has much to recommend it. The collaborations with Calexico have been in the making for some time and previews have been aired on this site – namely the, ‘Desert Trilogy EP’s’. Calexico’s, ‘desert noir’, (another addition to the ever-burgeoning list of interesting genre descriptions – and probably one of the better ones) mixes well with Owens, ‘post-industrial Scottish heartlands’, sensibilities. Special guests Grant-Lee Phillips and Gaby Moreno supplement what is described as the, ‘Tucson core’, – of Owens on guitars, Joey Burns on various basses, John Convertino on percussion, Jacob Valenzuela on trumpets (which add so much to the signature Calexico sound), and finally Sergio Mendoza on piano, accordion and percussion. There are other musicians involved but the list becomes a little unwieldy at that point.
Owens was partly inspired by the photographs of the wonderful Ansel Adams that helped fire his vision of a territory, ‘defined by a border, by barbed wire, by bustling Barrios and wild panoramic desert spaces’. This we are told is a territory that has long captured his heart. A long way from Leith.
Musically this is very much what you might expect from a Calexico influenced set and the whole feel of the album is delightful with a peak reached in the brief instrumental part whistled, ‘Here Comes Paul Newman’, which Owens tells us was,
‘Inspired by one of my favourite films – Hud (starring Paul Newman). I was also thinking about the great Spaghetti Western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone’.
Calexico always seems like a band with a good soundtrack in them, though it is something of a surprise that their most notable effort so far is the Brendan Gleeson Irish dark comedy vehicle, ‘The Guard’, – excellent film that it is.
Owens seems to have been much taken with a visit to the ‘Sinners Shrine‘, in Tucson – dedicated to one Juan Oliveras and the only Catholic shrine in America dedicated to a sinner and not a saint. His songs cover some familiar themes, love, loss, regret, the eternal struggle between the sexes as well as wider issues regarding immigration and the health of the planet. To an extent, the perspectives are not always new and whilst there are some useful notes regarding the songs, they are often about process and not meaning – which can take a little deciphering.
One narrative is that of displacement as in, ‘Hopeless Ghosts’, inspired by Townes Van Zandt and in a setting where. ‘No town feels like home… Home is the road’. In, ‘New Mexico’, Owens explains ‘I had to leave’, whilst opener, ‘Arizona‘, has the feel of a tainted love affair,
‘Nobody, but you can save me now / I’m just trying to find a way across / I’ve got to get out of this place I’m in / Arizona’.
‘The Barbed Wire’s Still Weeping’, is partly a reference to immigrants on the US / Mexico border and reflect some of Owens recent reading which he tells us is about, ‘desperate people in desperate situations, looking for a better life’. Black orchids are a traditional symbol of death, barbed wire a means of enclosure or imprisonment,
‘Through the night / The dark horses run / Through the night / To never return /The barbed wire’s still weeping………The black orchids / Mark the trail of their tears / The black orchids / Show them the way
‘La Lomita’, (translated as, little hill?) might be another lyric about immigrants (indirectly it is) but in fact, Owens describes,
‘the story of a small chapel, La Lomita. One of the oldest in the US and a place of refuge, right on the border, it was in danger of being demolished to make way for Trump’s wall.
Thus, ‘You can’t build a wall / Where all lost souls / Make their stand / You can’t build a wall’,
It is perhaps most helpful to retreat into the sound of the recording rather than the meaning and above all else, this set sounds great. Owens sings well with Burns and their voices and the music complement each other well. The deft touches of what might be called the Calexico sound are as always, a delight – described by Wikipedia as a,
‘Musical style … influenced by traditional Latin sounds of mariachi, conjunto, cumbia and Tejano mixed with country, jazz and post-rock’.
What fun we do have with definitions.
‘We Need Us‘, is a straightforward call regarding the state of the planet and a plea for us all to realise that,
‘This beauty that we see / Should be here long after you and me / Should be here for those who come / Long after us‘.
The best tracks might be, ‘Summer in Your Eyes’, a relatively straightforward love song, and closer, ‘After the Rain’, which whilst it risks a lot by claiming, ‘I’ll always be here for you’, does boast the best vocal on the album and a clear sentiment in a near anthemic rendition:
‘Maybe the sun won’t always shine / And maybe the moon won’t always glow / But if there’s one thing that’s guaranteed it’s / I’ll always be here for you’.