Good things come to those who wait and for Dean Owens and his fans, the release of Sinner’s Shrine has been a long time coming. Recorded two years ago but put in abeyance due to Covid, Sinner’s Shrine is the latest episode in Owens’ increasing immersion in American music. From his days in Edinburgh’s The Felsons, followed by a series of increasingly popular solo albums and collaborations, Owens has never shied away from his love of and indebtedness to the songs and culture of The States while always retaining elements of his Leith family roots. Look to the swampy Southern Wind (co -written with Will Kimbrough and winner of the AMAUK’s song of the year) which rubs shoulders with Elvis Was My Brother, a fine epistle to a childhood friend on 2018’s Southern Wind album. His collaborative album, Buffalo Blood, released a year later, was a full-blown American trip, recorded in the deserts of New Mexico and now, he returns to the arid southwest as Sinner’s Shrine finds Owens, this time in Tucson, giving full expression to his love of that border country’s music and myths.
The icing on the cake here is the presence of most of Calexico, perhaps the chief purveyors these days of those sun-blistered environs. A chance meeting with Calexico’s Joey Burns ended up with Owens travelling to Tucson with a handful of songs inspired by the polyrhythmic sounds of Calexico and his knowledge of the local lore. It’s a match made in heaven as Owens cleaves to the exotic sounds conjured by Burns and his compadres. With fellow Calexicans, John Convertino, Sergio Mendoza and Jacob Valenzuela all on board and with other Tucson luminaries on tap, Sinner’s Shrine is certainly the epitome of Owens career so far. It’s expansive, thrilling and, above all, authentic. That signature Calexico sound is ever present but is helmed by Owens’ ownership of the songs and this is perhaps most apparent in the reworking of New Mexico, a song originally recorded by Owens on his first solo album. Back then it was a low-key acoustic number, here it blossoms into a fully-fledged border ballad with grumbling guitar and soaring trumpet.
The history of, the romance, and the reality of living in these borderlands inform several of the songs. The opening song, Arizona, has a cluster of instruments including pedal steel (from Paul Niehaus) appearing as if through a heat haze as Owens explores the territory – the barrio, the titular sinner’s shrine – essentially the heart of the border music he has long admired and he admits that it has cast a wire around his own heart, drawing him in. Despite the notion of wide-open desert vistas, Arizona is quite claustrophobic in effect with the band coiled, but ready to strike. And strike out they do over the rest of the album. The Hopeless Ghosts, a song inspired by a Townes Van Zandt quote, is a tale of wanderlust, of dusty trails full of memories, while the aforementioned New Mexico positively jumps out of the speakers as Owens gets more romantic, singing of his “Sweet Maria,” a long lost lover. He gives it a lusty rendition on a song which one could easily imagine Johnny Cash singing. Summer In Your Eyes is another romance which, with its mariachi horns, elegant piano and sleek guitars would not be out of place on a Mavericks’ album. Meanwhile, the short interlude which is Here Comes Paul Newman is Owens’ affectionate nod to the cowboy movies he loved while growing up. While it’s Newman’s Hud he mentions in the notes, it’s Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks which he perfectly captures here with his assured whistling.
The title of the album is mentioned in the opening song but the sinner’s shrine also informs Compañera, a beautifully realised lament which is soaked in memories and tradition. Here, the band wallow wonderfully over a string arrangement which certainly pulls at the heart strings while Tony Pro, from the Mariachi band Luz De Luna, on guitarron, adds some gravity. Going back to cowboy movies, Compañera stands comparison to Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for that old John Wayne film, The Alamo, a favourite of mine when I was a kid.
Whilst it’s quite wonderful to wallow in Owens’ excellent capture of the romance and history of Tucson and the surrounding area, at the heart of the album there is a darker tone. On The Barbed Wire’s Still Weeping, the vocals are distorted, disembodied, while Burns and his cohort pull out the big guns. The song deals with the plight of the migrant population on the US/Mexico border, a theme common to both Owens and Burns, and they portray a parched and dread landscape with a thunderous sense of menace. La Lomita is in similar territory with Owens singing of a refuge on the border which was in danger of being demolished to make way for Trump’s infamous wall. The song is a full blown spectacle with Mendoza adding just about everything but the kitchen sink from his percussive box of tricks as it sways magnificently with stabs of trumpet and staccato guitar. It’s the most “Calexico” sounding number on the album and proof, if it be needed by now, that this pairing is just about perfect. Further proof of that perfection is to be had when Burns called in the Guatemalan singer, Gaby Moreno, to add her glorious voice to the sensuous swirl of Land Of The Hummingbird. Inspired by the rhythms of Cumbia it’s sexy and sultry while Mendoza’s piano playing reminds one of the majesty of the Buena Vista Social Club. That signature Calexico sound is given another airing on the tremendous thrust of the Farfisa infused We Need Us before the album closes with a nod to Owens’ past on After The Rain. A song which dates back to The Felsons, it was originally inspired by an Ansel Adams photograph and having heard Owens sing it, Burns demanded it be on the album. Here, it retains its quiet majesty while turned down a notch or two in terms of Owens’ singing, but it’s a fine valedictory to what is an extraordinarily great album.