Launched at a fabulous live gig at the tail end of Celtic Connections and officially released last week, Southern Wind is the latest instalment in Dean Owens steady rise towards the top echelons of Scots musicians. As with 2015’s Into The Sea, Owens offers up a robust and perfectly formed album, the songs memorable and excellently played, the mix of punchy rock numbers and more introspective ballads over the course of its length finely balanced. And again, as on Into The Sea, Owens delves into his memories and his family for several of the songs while elsewhere he celebrates the joy of rock’n’roll and, significantly, mines the rich seam of Southern music from the States.
Recorded in the same Nashville studio as Into The Sea with the same team on board (Neilson Hubbard, producer and percussion plus bass, piano and “various bits & pieces, Will Kimbrough, guitars banjo, mandolin and Evan Hutchings, drums along with Dean Marold on bass) there’s one change from Owens’ usual habits in that several of the songs are co-written with Kimbrough and, as Owens recently told Blabber’n’Smoke, “I’d said to Neilson Hubbard, the producer, “I really want to make a swampy sounding record,” and that’s what he does really well. He’s from Mississippi and Will’s from Alabama as is Evan so they have that sound in their veins.” It’s recognisably a Dean Owens album but that Mississippi mud can’t help but seep into several of the numbers here.
The album opens with Owens’ clarion call to some musical heroes including Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagen, B. B. King and The Waterboys on The Last Song. Given a delirious folk stomp and sounding like The Faces playing a particularly raucous pub gig it’s a delicious opener and acts almost as a bridge from the last album to the present one. There’s a further reflection of the previous album on Madeira Street, written (as was Evergreen) for Owens’ late sister, another example of how he can vividly cast his memories into song and, going further back, he finally offers his mother her own song, a counterpoint to his salute to his dad on Man From Leith, with Mother, a song co-written with Danny Wilson (from Danny & The Champs) and given a lilting, almost calypso beat along with an early sixties teen crooner charm, a rare ray of light in an album that at times is densely populated with loss and regret. Famous Last Words for example is a love song about the end of love while When The Whisky’s Not Enough is a fine addition to the canon of songs about being in your cups but still feeling pain, a real downer, it’s enlivened with zinging slide work from Kimbrough. Bad News is a slow burner with creeping organ and ominous guitars as Owens warns a woman not to go back to an abusive husband.
Owens has written songs inspired by his friends before but probably none as successful as Elvis Was My Brother where he takes on the words from a friend’s letter which explained that his transient childhood only had one true touchstone which was the Memphis Flash. Here, Owens and the band really excel, the song a wonderfully upbeat slice of rootsy pop with curling guitars and a rhythmic groove which recalls the splendid John Hiatt album, Bring The Family. Owens was in Amarillo when he heard the news that Muhammad Ali had died. A hero of his since boyhood, he wrote Louisville Lip that night hunkered in his hotel room. The barest song here, just guitar and a mournful trumpet, it pulls together Owens’ memories of watching Ali on the telly as a kid, an experience which led him to pulling on the gloves in his teens. Sentimental but the sentiment is heartfelt, here Owens avoids any schmaltz with the song quite tugging actually.
Finally, there’s the Southern issue. The album is replete with swampy keyboards and Kimbrough’s snakelike guitar but Owens really dives into the Kudzu ridden culture on three songs here. Love Prevails, which closes the album, is loosely aligned with Rodney Crowell’s memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, as Owens summons up a Waltons’ in reverse, a family who fight and squabble but who are held together by their common bond – a universal theme perhaps but dignified by Kimbrough’s guitar licks and the mournful organ – the end result almost hymnal. His deepest delve into the South finds Owens accompanied by the powerful voice of Kira Small whose magnificent wailing elevates two songs here. The title song opens in a portentous manner with Owens evoking nature over interweaving guitars before thunderous tribal drums approach and Kimbrough unleashes his evil guitar sound. The song thrashes on with the guitar like a twister destroying all in its path until Owens, Small (and The Worry Dolls who were passing by) indulge in an orgy of shamanistic wailing. No Way Round It is prefaced by a very brief snatch of slide guitar and moaning (recalling Ry Cooder’s work in Performance) before its strident riff gets into its stride, pulsing like a heart about to burst as it progresses from a banjo driven skip to full throated guitar solo with Owens a lone soul wailing against nature’s barriers aided and abetted by Small’s magnificent voice which plays a similar role to that of Merry Clayton on The Stones’ Gimme Shelter. It’s an absolute belter of a song with Kimbrough’s guitar solo frenzied and outrageous while the dynamics of the song, the shifts from the banjo motif to squalls of sound are just superb. And, having seen Owens play this live with his Whisky Hearts band, we can confirm that it’s just as thrilling if not more so in a live setting.
Southern Wind finds Owens still proud of his roots in Leith but becoming more adventurous in his exploration of American music. That he can tie both ends of this transatlantic bridge with such confidence and, at times, swagger, is testament to his skill and to his ongoing relationship with his extremely talented American friends. We do look forward to the next instalment.