Tex Mex desert delights from Dean Owens, the Man from Leith and his heavy friends from Calexico. A wee hauf, a hauf and a jalapeño.
Release date: 18th February 2022
Label: Continental Records
Format: CD / digital
What a couple of years it has been for Dean Owens, the quietly unassuming troubadour of a distinctively confident country glaswegiana, who has surreptitiously become both confidant and protégé of Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico, those consummate celebrants of exquisite Tex-Mex border music. Those with an ear to the desert floor will already be aware of that, courtesy of the trickle of EPs throughout the last year or so, beacons of high noon lustre for the dark days of a lockdown world. Those three EPs, collectively the Desert Trilogy, should be seen as the work in progress for this release, which brings forward four songs from those sessions, adding in a new seven you won’t be familiar with. Got the EPs? Believe me, you still need this, and more, way more, than just for the sake of completism.
Arizona, the opening track, a new one, opens simply enough, a plaintive lament over strummed guitars: “I wish I lived on the barrio,” Owen’s voice already a welcoming balm, the sound of cranachan; oats with whisky, cream, honey and cane fruits. Gradually the other instrumentation slots in, some spiky guitar notes, courtesy Burns, who also handles the bass, before the swoop of steel, Paul Niehaus, adds all the atmosphere you think you could ever need. The trumpet of Jacob Valenzuela, also of Calexico, then adds even more, jousting with that guitar, the swirl of sounds almost orchestral, a shimmer in a wall-to-wall sunset. The Hopeless Ghosts and New Mexico then get a reprise from, respectively, Ghosts, aka volume three of the trilogy, and The Burning Heart, volume one. The former comes in with a glorious flourish of Convertino’s drums, before a curtain of steel and brass unfolds. Another song of the wanderer, sympathetic harmony vocals come from Grant-Lee Phillips. The bass is a delight on this track, with sly handclaps adding to the percussive backdrop. “Home is the road I’m on” is a well-trodden narrative line, but is here entirely believable. New Mexico ushers in then the most overt infusion of cross-border heat haze, the trumpet and guitar expressing their opposing allegiances.
Dipping the mood, and the pace, back a step or two, Compañera is a maudlin soak in self-pity, the sort of song of insightful near defeat that promotes a strange sense of uplift. Strings, from tom Hagerman, and string bass vie with the never more mariachi trumpet and the whole is a sumptuous wallow. A sense of soundtrack is building, that then cemented by the full Morricone of Here Comes Paul Newman, another remnant of the earlier project, again from volume one. An instrumental, a mere minute and a half, it is all strings, trumpet, cymbals. And whistling. It is Owens himself who purses his lips and blows. The sense of spaghetti western lingers into The Barbed Wire’s Still Weeping, thuds of drum and chunky piano notes imbuing the mood with menace. Again the construction of the layered sound is as broad as it is wide, the production duties virtually all Owen’s own work.
La Lomita now goes all Latino pop, almost rap in the chanted intro, before Owens croons over the rhythmic shuffle of the band. A warning over the increasing demarcations, physical and cultural, that increasingly divide the neighbouring countries, the US and Mexico: “you can’t build a wall.” The final track from the Trilogy, Sand and Blood, volume two, is The Land of the Hummingbird, and has guest artist, Gaby Moreno, adding her sultry duet vocal. A cha cha cha, with the piano of Sergio Mendoza and terrific controlled percussion from Burns and Valenzuela, here adding some congas, the two voices complement and contrast, showing both sides of the border.
Remember Chris Montez? Well, that farfisa spirit is invoked by We Need Us, with a richly cheesy organ solo provided by Craig Schumacher, a song that sashays along magnificently, two tequilas to the wind, as twangs of baritone guitar bookend the exuberant brass and strings. Summer In Your Eyes feels to be back on the saddle, another narrative of love, love possibly lost, the hopefulness of the lyric tinged by a regret carried by the mournful arrangement. A pervasive melancholia seeps similarly into the closer, After The Rain. An old song from Owen’s past life as the Felsons, his 1990s band, it has been buffed up and retitled, with an elegant piano framing Owens lonesome guitar and voice. Organ and steel join in the brushwork on the drums. A gorgeous way to close the project.
Owens has steadily been building up steam and credibility these past years, somehow remaining a best-kept secret. This collaboration will hopefully cement the attention of a wider audience, drawn in by the Calexico connection. And, who knows, with the right turn of the cards, the future may see a day when that band get checked as the Dean Owens associates. OK, that may leave behind the days where he can stand, unnoticed in and untroubled by the crowd, at the tiny Maverick Festival, but he deserves it.
Here’s New Mexico: