Anger, cynicism and plenty of melancholy leavened by precious rays of honest truth that will take more than hard times to obscure
With his fourteenth album and first release in six years, Ovans presents us with a sparse soundtrack for the plight of humanity in general and for those living in America in particular. There are themes of exclusion, abuse of power and loneliness with hard-luck tales abounding, all delivered with Ovans’s gravel-like vocals, acoustic guitar and harmonica. Comparisons with early Dylan are easy to draw, with undoubted similarities, notably in the quality of Ovans’s coarse vocals, phrasing and singing/speaking style. That said, Ovans has his own unique way of presenting a story that immediately engages with its urgency and directness; we feel compelled to stop and listen to what is being said.
Recorded on four-track analogue equipment, technological wizardry is eschewed for a gritty natural sound that is well suited to this collection of songs. The first track, ‘Going Back Home’ sets the sonic palette for the rest of the album with raw acoustic guitar and harmonica playing that just exudes attitude. With its themes of alienation and exclusion, there is a longing in the song to return to different times. The wonderfully entitled, ‘Spaghetti Blues’ gives a world-weary tale of disillusion and frustration. ‘Her’ is a heartfelt lament for lost love; the perfectly timed vocal phrasing really adds to the strength of this track. Shades of the man with a voice like sand and glue are salient in, ‘Rambling and Rolling’ which vacillates between a spoken/sung vocal that opines, “You just can’t get hung up on what people say”. The title track, ‘Crows in the Corn’ suggests that these birds may not be sending a happy message in this instance, though they do share characteristics with some of the humans presented in these songs; specifically that they are adaptable but change when persecuted and that some varieties are migratory whilst others are entirely resident. ‘Apocalyptic Dawn’ takes us through a wild night’s perambulation in an upside-down world that ends with the light of a new day that is unlikely to be filled with hope. It might be assumed that ‘Land of the Shakes’ will give us a tale of alcohol dependency but in fact, the land being referred to is the area around Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tenessee which was created by 19th-century earthquakes and is used as a metaphor for the plight of working people. The visceral, ‘Hard Road Mama’ gives us a glimpse of contemporary times with the lines: “Eyes in the sky/Boots on the ground/You speak truth to power/Boy you know you’re trouble bound”. ‘On a Greyhound’ captivates the listener with its sad truthfulness and represents one of several standout tracks on this album. Penultimately, ‘The Mighty Sea’ is a tragic ballad of love across the social divide and involves Ovans seamlessly placing himself as the troubadour who brings tears to an old man’s eyes with his rendition of Dylan’s, ‘Girl from the North Country’. The album draws to a close with perhaps Ovans’s most well-known song, ‘Avenue of the Americas – (6th Avenue)’ which is presented here as originally written.
Hard luck tales, broken love affairs, a nation in disarray; this is the grist that drives Ovans’s mill. There is anger, cynicism and plenty of melancholy to found here but also precious rays of honest truth that will take more than hard times to obscure; ask those crows in the corn.