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 With a wealth of historical documents to hand (letters, journals, poetry, some written by members of the titular Orphan Brigade, a nickname of the Confederate Army’s First Kentucky Brigade) the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

Dean Owens. Into The Sea. Drumfire Records

Dean Owens recorded his second solo album, Whisky Hearts, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. For Into The Sea, his latest release he’s returned to Tennessee, this time Nashville, enlisting again the talents of Will Kimbrough along with appearances from Suzy Bogguss and Kim Richey. Although the Nashville connection (and Owens’ past with The Felsons) might lead one to expect a pedal steel adorned collection of country songs, instead, Into The Sea is a mature set of reflective songs that showcase his ever improving writing skills and vocals. As is often the case with Owens he delves into family memories and his roots in Leith. I’m sure someone somewhere must have said this of him; You can take the man out of Leith but you can’t take Leith out of the man.

The album opens with the wonderful Dora, a song that rings with faint echoes of Richard Thompson especially in the guitar chords as Owens delves into his family tree to tell the story of his grandmother, raised in a travelling circus. He follows with the grand sweep of Closer To Home which opens with strummed guitar before a folksy accompaniment adds a lift to the song. A yearning tribute to those soldiers who didn’t return from war the song gains a melancholic piano refrain as it soars towards the end. Owens sparkles when he is in nostalgic mood and Evergreen is a nod to his past as he sings,
“I remember you and me as we were that summer on the beach at Gullane”
on what turns out to be a fine love song with Kim Richey adding fine harmonies. Kids (79) again mines his memories, a school picture leading to recollections of old school friends and their chequered stories. With a degree of resignation and sadness the song gradually gives way to anger with guitar bursting in as Owens recites,
“Jimmy died at 20, Andy’s a drunk. Stevie’s still a good friend, Davy’s on the junk.”

There’s a cosy warmth to the soft acoustic rock of Virginia Street and Up On the Hill vibrates with shimmering guitars that slide and swarm around the vocals. A more subdued feel attends the organ draped It Could Be Worse which has a crumpled melancholic tenderness to it while Owens’ elegy for the late Michael Marra, Sally’s Song (I Dreamed Of Michael Marra) successfully marries Marra’s wearied delivery with more of Owen’s reflections on his own past as he again remembers past friends and times in a recently demolished housing estate. The melody and arrangement along with the lyrics are a fitting tribute to Marra and the closing words are obviously from the heart.

Owens hits a peak towards the close of the album with the guitar undulations that reverb gently through The Only One adding a fifties dreamlike quality to the song. Written for a friend whose partner had a terminal illness the song is masterful and evocative. There’s sadness sewn into the melody while the words convey the loss and sense of emptiness thereafter. Finally, there’s a bonus track tacked onto the end of the album, a reprise of a song from Owens first album, I’m Pretending I Don’t Love You. It’s a wonderfully woozy honky tonk waltz in the George and Tammy tradition and features Suzy Bogguss duetting with Owens and some insouciant whistling.

Owens will be appearing at the Southern Fried Festival in Perth next week and is also performing his show, Cash Back, Songs From Johnny Cash at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Dates here

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