All good things must come to an end and so it happens that Ghosts is the final piece to be slotted into Dean Owens’ Desert Trilogy slipcase. A quick recap. Having recorded an album, Sinner’s Shrine, with Calexico in Tucson, Owens’ plans for its release were scuppered by Covid. Undeterred, the Edinburgh based artist used his lockdown time to record another bunch of songs with various members of Calexico and other Tucson luminaries and he’s been releasing them via this highly desirable collection.
All the EPs have a song from the album but Owens was keen not to short-change his fans so, overall, they contain eight new songs, all cut from the same cloth which inspired the original recordings, Owens’ love of the American Southwest. So far there has been critical acclaim for this new direction and Ghosts is certain to bask in similar glory.
As with the other EPs, it’s a song from Sinner’s Shrine, which leads off. The Hopeless Ghosts is very much in the vein of Calexico’s hot, dusty and claustrophobic desert shuffles. John Convertino’s drumming is instantly recognisable as is Jacob Valenzuela’s soaring trumpet and Paul Niehaus weighs in with his swooning pedal steel. As Calexico do much of the time, Owens achieves a cinematic effect here with visions of movies by Leone and Peckinpah summoned by the music and the words – there’s drama by the dirtload. It’s haunting (as most songs with Ghosts in the title should be), as Owens comes across like some high plains drifter, condemned to forever travel. In a nice touch, Owens explains that the idea of hopeless ghosts comes from a Townes van Zandt description of his songs. Anyhow, the song is a towering achievement which is lifted further aloft when Grant-Lee Phillips joins Owens on harmony vocals, especially when the pair vocally pirouette towards the end of the song.
Mother Road is much more restrained as Owens delivers a wearied narrative, inspired by a 93 year old barber who had a shop on Route 66, a road now seldom travelled once the Interstate opened. It’s a sepia stained portrait of past times, replete with lonesome pedal steel and mournful trumpet and it’s a fine example of how Owens can transport his evocative portraits of his home town to a foreign land. Even When I’m Gone finds Owens on his own on a song which was recorded in Tucson but which was inspired by walks with his dog in the woods near Edinburgh. Again, there’s a sense of desolation here although it’s tempered by the thought that once we pass, life will go on. The EP ends with a murder ballad which Owens says he had written for Johnny Cash but, with the man in black gone, he has to sing himself. Owens recorded his basic track in Scotland with Kevin McGuire on double bass before Convertino, Martin Wenk, Tom Hagerman and Naim Amor sent in their contributions from various locations. Fittingly, as the last song on this trilogy, it’s called The End and, yes, one can imagine Cash singing it on one of his latter albums. Like some Dostoevskian anti-hero on the eve of his execution, Owens reflects and ruminates on a life of crime as a baleful trumpet and tasteful shards of guitar lead him towards the gallows. It’s a very impressive song.
So, trilogy wrapped up, all we can do is wait for Sinner’s Shrine. The main course after these wonderful appetizers.
Friday sees the much-anticipated release of the second volume of Dean Owens’ Desert Trilogy – three EPs which each feature a song from his even more anticipated Sinners Shrine album (due for release in September) along with other songs recorded in or inspired by his recent Tucson liaison with Calexico.
Sand And Blood opens with Land Of The Humming Bird, co-written with Gabriel Sullivan of Tucson rockers XIXA (this EP’s sneak preview of the album). It finds Owens fully embedded in the southwest borderlands on a dark romantic song played with an effortless sense of swing. Sergio Mendoza’s piano playing here is excellent while Naim Amor adds some neat guitar grumbles, but it’s Gaby Moreno, duetting with Owens on vocals, who really steals the show here. Owens has a thing for hummingbirds but he’s never made them sound so exotic as he does here.
Dolina casts a darker shadow as the Calexico chaps shift into their most moody groove with staccato trumpets bursts and shards of guitar thrown out like gravel from under a juggernaut’s wheels. The lyrics are menacing, the sand and blood of the EP’s title are to be found here, and the coruscating distortion of Owens’ voice midway through is quite gripping, like watching a cinema giallo unfolding before your eyes. Ashes & Dust is one of the songs worked up internationally during lockdown with the musicians zooming in from Scotland, Texas, Arizona and Berlin. You certainly can’t see (or hear) the joins as it fits in perfectly with the atmosphere summed up in the previous songs. It’s a dustier and drier vision of the desert, summoning up the stark adobe peppered barren landscapes of Leone’s own trilogy. With Owens capturing the inner thoughts of a blessed and cursed individual, like a funeral procession, the song proceeds slowly, the protagonist approaching his own personal Golgotha.
It has to be said that Dolina and Ashes & Dust are both quite tremendous and that neither of them are slated for inclusion on Sinners Shrine just makes one wonder how good that album is going to be. Anyhow, the EP concludes with She Was A Raven which is an alternative take of the opening song. Here they abandon the refined pace of the original and instead sweat it out. Gone is Gaby Moreno, and in her place are Jacob Valenzuela’s rip snorting trumpet trills and Joey Burn’s scathing guitar solo adding up to an almighty rumble.
Sand And Blood is available on a limited edition CD here. The third volume of the Desert Trilogy, Ghosts, will be released in July.
While it doesn’t get the acclaim afforded to Nashville, Arizona’s Tucson is home to a vibrant musical community and has been the launch point for a host of Blabber’n’Smoke favourites including Giant Sand, Rainer Ptacek, Calexico and, more recently, XIXA. We were intrigued therefore when we heard of a new collection of songs recorded by a host of Tucson musicians in order to raise funds for Al Foul, a local legend, who was recently diagnosed with cancer and faced a hefty bill for medical treatment.
Al Foul – A Tribute To The One And Only is a digital album available from Bandcamp and features 29 songs, most written by Foul, performed by familiar names such as Howe Gelb, Jesse Dayton, Calexico, Kid Congo Powers and Gabriel Sullivan, along with a variety of acts previously unknown to us. While all were recorded in the past few weeks, there is also the poignant presence of a performance by Rainer Ptacek who succumbed to a brain cancer back in 1997.
Al Foul himself has been a fixture of Tucson’s music scene since moving there from Boston in the late 1990’s, playing in a rockabilly/ hard country style, often as a one man band. Like many US musicians, he also has a loyal following in some European countries, in particular France. When he disclosed his diagnosis recently, Tom Walbank, a friend and, like Foul, an immigrant to Tucson where he has established himself as a blues artist, reached out to fellow artists and began collecting the songs which make up the album. Local studios (including Gabriel Sullivan’s Dust + Stone and Jim Waters’ Waterworks) opened their doors and donated free time to record while Walbank comments, “I realized that because it’s a pandemic, not everyone wants to go to the studio and not everyone had a home studio, so it was a little tricky. So there are some songs which are done very intimate on iPhones and stuff like that.”
One of the many musicians contributing is Naim Amor who appears on two songs. French born, Amor relocated to Tucson in 1997 and he has since released several solo albums and soundtracks and has also played live with and appeared on record with too many acts to mention here. He has had a long association with Foul and he was happy to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke to support the tribute album’s release. First off, we asked him about Al as he’s not that well known over here in the UK.
Al’s originally from Boston, he moved to Tucson as a young adult. Although I’m not sure of the year, it was around the time I moved out here so he has been part of the Tucson music scene since the early 90’s. He is known a bit in France because of particular connections and friends. He can go to France and actually make money, he never had any offers in the UK that would make it worthwhile. Al plays as a one-man band, it largely depends on budget… he could have a bass player or a guitar player or both. Sometimes it’s a four piece band with drums. I have been Al’s friend since the late 90’s and started playing with him in the mid 2000’s. I also recorded several of his albums.
You appear on two songs on the album. Where did you record them given Tom Walbank’s comments on the general rush, in the midst of a pandemic, to get the recordings done?
I have a recording studio on my own that is located at Jim Waters studio (Waterworks). We have lots of space here, lots of studios.
Your first appearance is with Lola Torch on Shitty Little World. From what I’ve read about Al it seems somewhat autobiographical and his original is very like Johnny Cash singing a Shel Silverstein song but I love the way you and Lola perform it. How did that come about?
Lola is a friend. She is a singer, a burlesque performer and a seamstress (Hi Tiger Lingerie). She wanted to do that song, but she had no plans on how to do it as she doesn’t play any musical instruments. I immediately thought about a song which we quite often cover together “ Is That All There Is “ by Peggy Lee. I thought we could give Al’s song the same treatment and that worked out nicely. We thought about changing the person singing to a “He” instead of “I,” given it’s the story of a boy. But Lola decided to keep it in its original gender which in turn bends the gender in a surprisingly very natural way.
You also perform Flying Saucer with Thoger Lund and John Convertino. Why did you choose this song?
Well, there’s a limited number of songs and they had to be recorded pretty quick. But I always loved that song, I can give it a bit of a swing feel, jazz it up. It’s also a sweet song that is so typical of Al’s humor.
I was quite impressed by the wealth of collaboration on show on the album. Is Tucson the kind of place where all the music acts know each other and there’s a lot of cross-fertilization in terms of playing together?
Definitely! It’s not a really big city, but it’s an American city, 1 million people. However, the music community feels like a village. Lot’s of people play in different bands. It ends up creating a culture of how things happen, how people work.
On that note, how is the music community in Tucson coping with Covid and how have you been spending your time?
There’s no live music so people record, practice, start new projects. That’s my case, I have been practicing guitar like crazy and working with my jazz Trio, I learned and memorized nearly 90 jazz standards. We play in backyard. I also recorded an album with John Convertino last summer (Correspondents) that was released in Japan in the fall. Shaun Hendry is talking about putting it out in the UK on vinyl. I’m currently recording a project with Kid Congo Powers, a “rockabilly/drum machines” kind of thing.
Both of Naim’s contributions to the album are pretty swell but the same can be said of all 29 songs, all of which point to Foul being quite a pointed and direct songwriter. There’s delta blues, rockabilly, country and swamp rock and a good dose of Tucson idiosyncrasy. The album is available for the measly sum of Ten Dollars on Bandcamp and all proceeds go towards Al Foul’s medical expenses. We’ll leave the final words to Foul himself.
“The thought of everyone getting together to produce this tribute for me is beyond touching. Often people share negative memes on social media or express the attitude that choosing to be a working musician is some form of folly or a loser’s game…driving to the ends of the earth for nothing. But the outpouring of love I have received proves to me, that is absolutely wrong. Now I see that thirty years of playing music has left me with something so absolutely pure, beautiful, and beyond priceless that I will never see the craft the same way. I am so humbled by the love that I feel now. Those words ring true more every day.”
Al Foul – A Tribute To The One And Only is available here.
Here’s Al Foul singing Shitty Little World
And here’s the version by Lola Torch and Naim Amor
Marianne Dissard is probably best known as a sometime collaborator with several bands from the Tucson scene including Giant Sand and Calexico; most notably, she is the femme fatale on Calexico’s Ballad Of cable Hogue. A noted filmmaker and photographer in addition to being a chanteuse, Dissard recorded three albums in Tucson, the last being The Cat, Not Me along with two albums in what she calls her City Series, Paris One Takes and Cologne Vier Takes. Last year she relocated to Europe and this collection, culled from the above albums, is something of a farewell to her American years.
Blabber’n’Smoke reviewed L’Entredeux and The Cat, Not Me, albums that steered a course between European (and in particular French) pop tradition and American guitar rock. Despite the plethora of Tucson musicians the overall sense was of a continental bent, Serge Gainsbourg being an obvious touchstone, Dissard singing in French (and occasionally German), her voice usually somewhat sultry in the grand manner of the likes of Juliette Greco and Francoise Hardy. Her lyrics (handily translated on her website) sensual, poetic, dark, a mix of Rimbaud and French argot. Above all her words were wrapped in a polyglottal musical language, Mariachi, twang guitars and Chanson all thrown into the pot and this collection is a fine reflection of that.
The 13 songs gathered here are each and every one reason to make the listener search out the albums they are taken from. Dissard roams from the opening accordion jollity of Les Draps Sourds, the Bal Musette setting disguising the lusty goings on in the lyrics, to the nightmarish claustrophobia of Tortue. She almost purrs on the magnificent Pomme, a song that initially recalls Parisian cobbled streets before a grand, almost prog, middle eight weighs in. On the rock side there’s some ferocious guitar squabbles on the driving The One And Only, another fine guitar solo on the thrilling Election and Trop Express oozes sensuality over a funky Hammond organ riff. However Dissard can also come across like a Gallic Nico back in her Chelsea Girl days on the string laden acoustic ballad Cayenne or conjure up a glistening bucolic world on the sublime Les Confetttis. The crowning glory perhaps is the meandering musical map of Un Gros Chat with its spooky bowed saw and splashing cymbals, the lyrics abstractly erotic, Dissard like a whispered siren drawing listeners into her realm.
The album is an excellent entree into the weird and wonderful world of Ms. Dissard, a dizzying potpourri of sensual frissons seasoned with some wonderful music. The package itself is worth delving into. Packed full of pictures , tributes, poems and snippets of correspondence from the Tucson days it gives a measure of Dissard’s time there. In addition, with the deluxe package, Ms. Dissard has liberally garlanded each CD with golden confetti, some of which is still cluttering up the keyboard here.
Naim Amor is yet another of those European artists lured into the lair of Tucson to collaborate with members of Giant Sand and Calexico and who forgot to return. A French native, Amor was quickly assimilated into the local scene along with his then partner, Marianne Dissard, releasing albums as part of Amor Belhom Duo and ABBC, before going solo. Retaining a European sensibility on his own albums, often singing in French and often reaching into the world of La Variete, that particularly French version of pop music, Amor can come across as an Arizona equivalent of Stan Getz in his bossa nova days. He delivers sumptuous candy floss sounds that caress the ears of casual listeners but which reward those prepared to dive in for a longer look (and listen) with the cream of Tucson musicians and producers all grooving to this sunny Mediterranean sound. It’s significant that at times one imagines Amor’s music sound tracking films by Jacques Tati and even early Roger Vadim as he has a fine sideline in composing film scores and has released a series of instrumental albums for imaginary movies.
Hear The Walls, Amor’s latest offering, features for the most part Amor on guitars and vocals with Giant Sand’s Thoger Lund on upright base. Recorded straight to tape with some string overdubs added later it belies its simple conception as the warm sounds caress (that word again but there’s no other way to say it) and envelop the listener. Using a variety of guitars Amor sounds as if he’s sitting beside you gently plucking or strumming while his voice is a hushed and evocative Parisian come on, as French as a pack of Gitanes, a youthful Serge Gainsbourg. It’s a sonic delight and credit must go to Jim Waters who recorded the album and Jim Blackwood who mastered it. Amor says of the album “When you turn the music off, you can hear the walls-the sound of one specific place, it’s nude ambiance that makes it so unique. This album fits the moment and the place when you decide to finally turn the music on again…and listen”
and it’s true that this is essentially an ambient album that can transport the listener to another place. The opening song Live For It inhabits the same universe as Angelo Badalamenti’s music for Twin Peaks, a surrealistic netherworld where people swim in thick air never needing to surface for breath. Turn The Magic On is a sound map to late night silence, that space when the music stops and one reflects on what was heard, a familiar feeling for those caught in the endless embrace of listening, a favourite album conjuring up moments past, moments lost perhaps. Seulement Toi echoes these solitary moments with liquid guitar sounds that recall The Durutti Column’s cascades while Over the Miles throbs with a warm heartbeat. As Fast As The Tall Ships Go is a magnificent instrumental with Lund’s bass playing adding a tenebrous sonority beneath rippling guitars with the end result not too far from a Nick Drake recording. In The Blue Waters Of My Mind could be on the Popeye soundtrack, its watery immersion reflecting clear blue depths. Cherches Dans La Brume continues in this vein but No Way Back then moves into neurotic chamber pop territory, pizzicato strings amplifying the anxiety in the lyrics. The most cinematic piece here, Au Large de Tres Bras is a halting and sombre moment with the strings foremost but careful listening reveals some discordant guitar trickery in the background that adds to an overall sense of menace such as that conveyed in Polanski’s Repulsion. Some might find that far fetched but several late night listens here have evoked that response on each occasion. Au Rouge De Ton Baiser is late night France, seductive and mysterious, a Brassai monochrome set to music and the album ends with two more evocative instrumentals which demonstrate Amor’s two worlds, Learning America welcoming a new country while Cours La Rejoindre seems to wave farewell to the past.
As we said above this is sumptuous music to wallow in, a delight to listen to, a late night offering that will have you dreaming of Parisian spires, cobbled lanes and films from Marcel Carne and Jean Vigo. Enjoy.