Dean Owens (with Dave Coleman). Cotton Snow. Single Release, Drumfire Records.

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With the best reviews of his career so far tucked in his pocket (for his acclaimed 2015 album Into The Sea), Dean Owens saw out last year on a roll and entered the new Year with a bang, supporting Patty Griffin at Celtic Connections. When Blabber’n’Smoke interviewed Owens for AmericanaUK he spoke of his plans for 2016 including a proposed project that reunites him with Neilson Hubbard and Joshua Britt, two thirds of the crew behind the magisterial American Civil War album, The Orphan Brigade (which we reviewed here ). That album was inspired by the history infused into an old plantation building in Franklin, Tennessee and it’s to the Civil War and Franklin that Owens pays attention on this single release which will be available from April 15th.

On a visit last year to the site of the battle of Franklin, one of the bloodiest of the war, Owens was taken by an image mentioned by a participant, Captain Tod Carter. The artillery laying waste to the cotton gins and cotton fields scattered the plant which fell like snow on the soldiers, Cotton Snow. The following day Owens was in Dave Coleman’s (of Nashville band The Coal Men) home studio in Nashville, tinkering around with this idea when Coleman suggesting recording a take on it. Couple of hours later there’s a rough mix, Coleman a one band on drums, tape loops, bass, guitars and pedal steel, Owens with the words down pat. Some transatlantic polishing later and here’s the end result.

It’s a great song and a great recording. Cotton Snow plays to Owens’ ability to invest a song with drama and emotion, to paint a picture with his words. The place names resonate, Chattanooga and Shiloh, previous battles for the progenitor who sees the soldiers, whether clad in grey or blue, inside all the same colour. The surreal image of the cotton snow is amplified by the musical setting, Coleman stirring a twang filled guitar soup that recalls the mystical Americana of Lee Hazlewood. And while Owens doesn’t have the gruff gravitas of Hazlewood here he sings wonderfully, close miked, a slight drawl and a fine giddy up exclamation escaping his lips just before the first guitar solo. ┬áIt’s a class act.

Anyway, you can listen to the song below and pre-order it here.

 

 

 

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The Orphan Brigade. Soundtrack to a Ghost Story. Proper Records

Two Americans and an Irishman walk into a haunted house… No, it’s not the opening line of a joke but the punch line for the story behind The Orphan Brigade. The three (Neilson Hubbard, Joshua Britt and Ben Glover) have built an album around the tales and histories of characters from the Civil War period, notably Confederates housed in and around a plantation house named Octagon Hall in Franklin, Kentucky, sixty miles north of Nashville. The Hall still stands, spared from immolation by the Northern troops, an antebellum reminder of the horrors of war and slavery and reputed to be the “most haunted house in America.” With a wealth of historical documents to hand (letters, journals, poetry, some written by members of the titular Orphan Brigade, a nickname of the Confederate Army’s First Kentucky Brigade) the trio set up shop in the haunted house to write and record the album with assistance from Gretchen Peters, Kim Richey, Kris Donegan, Heather Donegan, Dean Marold, Eamon McLoughlin, Dan Mitchell, Barry Walsh, Carey Ott, Brad Talley, Zach Bevill, Jim DeMain and Ryan Beach.

It’s a fine back story and the cast tell tales of spooky happenings during the recording, much of it captured on a documentary directed by Hubbard and Britt. However, entertaining as this all is it’s much more than an Americana version of American Horror Story, the good news being that the album stands up to scrutiny whether the listener knows the origins or not. It’s not a retelling of the era in the vein of White Mansions although there are songs that refer directly to the experiences of the historical protagonists. Rather it’s an impressionistic capture of the spirit (sorry) of the times delivered in a variety of styles that gather in musical influences but are rooted in modern music. One could imagine that The Band or a solo Robbie Robertson might have made the album.

The war does loom large on the wheezy accordion tooled I’ve Seen The Elephant, the delicate harmonies of Last June Light and the martial numbers, The story You Tell Yourself, decorated with slight mandolin and throbbing guitar and We Were Marching On Christmas Day which captures excellently the tribulations of the foot soldier in a wintry waste. On a more optimistic note The Good Old Flag points to the reconciliation required after a bitter war and is delivered as an excellent mid tempo ballad buoyed on some fine guitar flourishes and sublime harmonies.

There’s a wealth of styles here, a sea shanty on Cursed Be The Wanderer, an Irish Lament with Paddy’s Lamentation and some slide driven Southern grit on Trouble My Heart (Oh Harriet). Whistling Walk appears at first to be an oddity, a whistled instrumental with a jazzy cornet and guitar it ambles into view with an unexpected jocularity but when one reads that it’s inspired by the fact that slaves carrying food from the kitchen to the table were ordered to whistle in order to prevent them eating any of the food then it falls into place.
As we said earlier, the album stands on its own two feet but there’s a wealth of information to be had for anyone wanting to delve, either into its making or the history it commemorates and is heartily recommended.

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And just because it’s Halloween