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


Mare Wakefield. Meant To Be.

Mare Wakefield is yet another of those talented writers and performers whose albums tumble into Blabber HQ with increasing regularity. Whether its something in the water or just plain old talent a good percentage of them have a firm grasp on what makes a good album, a good song and the chops to deliver the goods. In the pantheon of female (and this goes for the guys also) performers in the Americana field there are the stars (you know who they are), the hardy perennials who will always get a mention and then the workers at the coalface. Time and again I’m astounded and impressed by the quality of the music produced by people I’ve never heard of, who plough their own field and come up with the goods. Wakefield is yet another one of these.
Based in Nashville this is her fifth release. A vibrant and impassioned singer she can deliver straightforward confessional songs then delve into a big band arrangement with sassy horns and a great sense of swing. Wicked is one such song, deliciously salacious it conjures up rain swept neon lit passions while Red Dress has a New Orleans shuffle with stride piano. The central song on the album is About the War where Wakefield sings about her dreams of tending to wounded soldiers and of watching generals, safe behind the lines, drinking fine wines. In a brave move she allows a “long haired hippie from Galilee” to enter her dream to tell her to forgive them but the dream and the wars go on. Reading this one might think of the hippie tendency to regard Jesus as “one of them” but Wakefield avoids any such seventies mawkishness in what is really a very good song.
The album ends with the eight minutes long “bonus” of Dear J where Wakefield ditches her fine back up musicians (who include Will Kimbrough and Fats Kaplin, two musicians who seem to be appearing with increasing regularity recently). An open letter in the style of L. Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat it’s a wordy recollection of times spent with an old flame, some regretted, an acknowledgement that time moves on and that what was meant to be doesn’t always happen. A great end to what is really quite a fine album.

Always Valentine