“The Man from Leith” – Dean Owens

5 stars (out of 5)

0

If anyone asks, I’ll always identify as Scottish. In terms of music, it’s a heritage that I tap into. There’s a Celtic feel to many Scottish writers and performers that strikes a chord and I guess it’s because of shared cultural references (it applies to books as well; I love Ian Rankin’s novels, among others). But enough about me; this is all about Dean Owens and his latest album, a greatest hits package titled “The Man from Leith”. Many of the themes of the songs are universal, but there’s also a clear Scottish theme that runs through the album (the title might be a giveaway).

Dean’s been releasing work as a solo artist for about twenty years now and, with a release about every three or four years (not including collaborations and side projects), that’s a substantial back catalogue. Although Dean’s an album, more than a singles, artist, there are still standout songs that have been tried and tested live and are consistently popular. These are the songs that Dean has played solo, as a duo with various guitar players and with various band configurations (with some incredible musicians) and they’ve been thoroughly road-tested; they’re all great songs.

Dean imbues his songs with a very clear sense of place, whether it’s Scotland or the arid desert of Arizona and he loves to tell a story. More than half of the songs on “The Man from Leith” are set in Scotland, particularly Edinburgh (with the obvious exception of “Raining in Glasgow”) and Dean has a genuine appreciation of Scottish songwriters who paved the way for the latest generation and might not be particularly famous outside Scotland (including luminaries like Rab Noakes and Michael Marra).

“The Man from Leith” is seventeen songs spanning Dean’s solo career, demonstrating the range of his songwriting skills from the intensely autobiographical (“Man from Leith” about Dean’s dad and “Baby Fireworks” about his daughter) to the anthemic Ronnie Lane/Ian McLagan tribute “The Last Song”, co-written with Will Kimbrough. If you’re not moved by those songs, your heart is a swinging brick and you shouldn’t even be reading this. And “Lost Time”, which closes the album, is a poignant reminder that we don’t get a second chance at life; make the most of it while you can. In fact the album closes with a run of three songs, “Raining in Glasgow”, “The Last Song” and “Lost Time” that bears comparison with any closing trilogy I’ve heard.

While I’m on the subject of song themes, not all songs are written in the first person; I’ve seen one review of this album get that really badly wrong. Great songwriters pull out themes from their own lives but also the lives of their friends and from stuff that they see on the news or in the papers; don’t make the assumption that everything’s autobiographical, there’s much more to songwriting than that. If you see Dean live, chances are he’ll tell you the stories behind the songs. That’s the best way to get an insight and you’ll probably get a laugh as well; Dean’s songs might be somewhere between melancholy and miserable but he has a wicked, dry sense of humour that you can only appreciate if you see him live.

So, is “The Man from Leith” the best of Dean Owens? It captures the breadth and depth of Dean’s songwriting from the autobiographical “Raining in Glasgow” to the historical WW1 song “Closer to Home” and everything else in between. There isn’t anything even resembling a mediocre song here, and I haven’t even mentioned the award-winning “Southern Wind” (co-written with Will Kimbrough) yet. Die-hard fans might pick out other songs that they think should be included, but this is a pretty good selection. If someone gave me this album and I hadn’t heard any of the songs previously, I’d be really chuffed. Is that good enough for you?

If I’ve met you at a gig, I might have mentioned that “The Last Song” is an absolute anthem; I’m more convinced of that every time I hear it live. Things aren’t looking too good for live music at the moment, but this will certainly give a good impression of what a Dean Owens gig sounds like.

“The Man from Leith” is available on CD and vinyl on Eel Pie Records from 20th March 2020.