Dean Owens is a story-teller, in musical form and from a grand Celtic tradition (a ‘blether’ perhaps?). The songs on his ‘Best Of’ collection ‘The Man from Leith’ give ample testament to this fact. Rather than epic, rambling tales of supernatural heroes or gods and goddesses, though, he recounts small stories that draw in turn from his family history, his personal experiences and the tales of others, heard third hand. Each of these yarns is spun into melodic gold and presented to us in a pleasing user-friendly package.
Taken together they have the enviable facility to make us feel like we are enjoying a cosy visit to the local and a beer with the other regulars – if you remember what those felt like! As with stories in the pub, Owens offers us anecdotes that are sometimes ‘real’ and other times invented; either way they are always worth hearing more than once.
Dean Owens hails from Leith, Edinburgh, and has been around the block a couple of times in his musical career. Through the years, though, he has never strayed far from the folk-country-pop axis thru which he first experienced a sliver of success with the band Smile before moving on to Scotland’s homespun alt-country sons The Felsons. Since they split he has enjoyed a long (ish) solo career beginning with debut record ‘The Droma Tapes’ in 2001 and spanning 7 LPs up to last year’s acclaimed and award winning ‘Southern Wind’. From his press it is clear that he is fond (if growing a touch tired of explaining) his ‘famous fans’ such as Irvine Welsh, who pens the notes for this LP. It’s still worth noting this connection, though, as Welsh’s assessment of Owens as telling “the tales of our lives, reaching into us to find the threads of our common humanity…” is a pretty good call, if perhaps only part of the story.
The track choices on ‘The Man from Leith (The Best of Dean Owens)’ lean heavily on his later work, with 8 of the 17 songs on the CD version coming from his last two records. The compilation of ‘Best Ofs’ can be a vexed activity and we don’t really know if this later focus is an artistic or commercial decision, although taking into account the apparent lack of contrivance of his career so far we might imagine artistic rather than commercial motives were at foot. Perhaps this is also an indication that Owens’ own interpretation of his oeuvre is that his records have gotten better over the years.
Indeed, part of the fun of such compilations can come from spotting the growth and development of an artist over the years. Here Owens eschews a chronological ordering of tracks, letting the running order be decided by mood and dynamics and this works well in creating a coherent listen, if it does make the ‘career modelling’ more tricky for the listener. What we can discern, though, is a stylistic consistency across his repertoire – the folk-country-pop axis as the core musical flavours in his writing and performing. If anything, the sound is possibly more mournful and folky at the beginning of his career and takes on a fuller and warmer tone as he settles into the solo performer role. Everything he produces is supremely melodic and accessible but these elements seem to come to the fore even more in the later material, offering a ‘poppier’ feel whilst still keeping the arrangements clean and simple, leaving the songs room to breathe.
Owens’ songwriting can be both intensely personal and universal, populated with characters from his family, from the annals of history or direct from his imagination. Spending time with the songs and the characters therein, they begin to draw you in, familiarising you with their worlds. They may only draw you in gently – he’s not like an immediately gushing friend, he’s a bit more stand-offish than that – but make the effort to get to know these songs and there is still enough interest there to reward your time.
So Dean Owens is a story-teller then. His stories are skilfully fashioned tunes, distilling the Celtic spirit with an Americana tinge – still, delivered with an approachably soulful voice and a genuine passion for his craft. Whatever approach he takes – lyrically personal or remote – musically folky or anthemic Celtic-pop, the results are sweetly melodic and often captivating songs that still keeps us at arm’s length somehow.