I’m not going to keep you in suspense; I love this album, it’s a very beautiful piece of work. It’s eleven very special songs (more about that later) interpreted by some very gifted musicians that we’ve reviewed over the last few years here (how about Will Kimbrough, Neilson Hubbard and Telisha Williams for starters, not forgetting Carrie’s husband Danny Schmidt). “The Penny Collector” is a set of songs created during a pivotal period for Carrie Elkin that focus on the circle of life; birth, childhood, adolescence (and rebellion), adulthood and death. It’s built around some of popular culture’s timeless themes; family, nature, love and loss and framed by some of the most gorgeous musical settings you’ll hear this year (or possibly any other). There’s a huge variety of musical stylings across the album, pulled together by the quality of the songs and Carrie’s wonderful voice.
The album opens with some atmospheric, almost Ennio Morricone, ambient guitar noises (Will Kimbrough would be my guess) leading into “New Mexico” where the playing is quiet and delicate but the mix is loud; it’s minimal and intimate but in your face at the same time. It’s an indication that you might have to forget about conventions; “The Penny Collector” doesn’t play to any recognised rules.
Throughout the album, Carrie’s vocals are closely-miked and placed right up front and centre; it’s a technique that works when the singer has perfect control, which Carrie has, totally and utterly. There’s a rich poetical seam running through the album (with references to nature, particularly birds), and it’s particularly evident in the adolescent rebellion song “Live Wire” with the line ‘A life half-empty is a life half-spilled’. There’s plenty more to discover but I don’t want to spoil it for you.
As for the musical settings, “Always on the Run” builds up to a Spectoresque climax, the melancholy “Crying Out” is played out over a string section and perfect layers of vocal harmonies and the album’s finale “Lamp of the Body” is a heavily reverbed mixture of mandolin, over-driven guitar and counterpoint vocals creating a sound that’s menacing and gospel-tinged in equal measures.
“The Penny Collector” is a potent mix of Southern American poetry, perfectly subverted musical settings and beautifully controlled vocals. It’ll make you reflect on your own life; the choices you made, the experiences you had, and the support you had from your family and friends. It’s a gorgeous album.
“The Penny Collector” is released on Friday April 7th (CECD07).
One of our Riot Squad favourites has been incredibly busy this year. Dean Owens has playing gigs around the country, solo and with his band The Whisky Hearts, but that’s just the start of it. He’s been in Nashville recording a new album with his old collaborators Will Kimbrough and Neilson Hubbard and playing some gigs. The album’s well on the way to being ready and he’s launched a crowdfunding appeal on GoFundMe to cover the costs of travel, recording and accommodation costs. Have a look at the GoFundMe page and see if you think you can pitch in with a few quid; every bit makes a difference.
But that’s not all. He’s been producing the second album for his Drumfire Records label-mate Ags Connolly (who hasn’t exactly had a quiet year himself) and putting together a deluxe edition of his previous album “Into the Sea”, with four new songs, “Alison Wonderland”, “Cotton Snow”, “Forgotten Shadows” and “Keep Me in Your Heart”. And still only a tenner.
You can catch him live before the end of the year in the following places:
Sunday October 30 Green Note, London
Friday November 18 The Live Room, Saltaire
Sunday November 20 The Maze, Nottingham
Friday November 25 Drygate Brewing Company, Glasgow, (with The Whisky Hearts)
Friday December 2 The Tolbooth, Stirling
Saturday December 3 The Weem Inn, Aberfeldy
Monday December 12 Traverse, Edinburgh (with The Whisky Hearts)
And there’s a new single, “Virginia Street”, out at the moment:
I think we need to introduce a new way of evaluating Country and Americana albums. The five star system’s all very well but I think we need another measure. I’m thinking of something like the Kimbrough Count; if Will Kimbrough plays on the album then it’s worth listening to. It certainly worked last year with his appearances on albums by Dean Owens and Sam Lewis, and he shows up again here on Rod Picott’s seventh album “Fortune”, but this is a very different proposition to the albums by either of those artists.
Rod Picott’s songs are intensely personal, zooming in on the lives of ordinary people (Rod included) and everyday events, and delivered in a gruff baritone that often sounds on the point of cracking, but never actually does. More often than not, he performs with just his own acoustic guitar for backing, but, on “Fortune”, he’s added a smattering of musicians including Will Kimbrough and Neilson Hubbard to create a sound that’s still sparse, stark and sometimes downright menacing and intimidating. It’s still a fairly minimal soundscape but it reinforces the powerful lyrics which are poetic but never overblown.
“Uncle John” is slightly untypical in that it deals mainly with family and society rather than personal matters, but the instrumentation is unsettling with detuned guitar, clipped notes, harmonics, heavy reverb and a sound somewhere between Dick Dale and Link Wray all underpinning a story of an outsider woodsman who pays the ultimate price for stepping outside society. The two lines ‘Drinks his beer from a can cause bottles break, Nine fingers from one mistake’ paint a graphic and economic picture of the lifestyle and its dangers, while the closing lines (along with the chorus) imply his death without actually making the statement.
The themes of the songs are mainly personal (although “Jeremiah” is written from the point of view of a woman hearing about the death of a soldier she loved), but it’s the moments when Rod steps back from dealing with raw emotion to singing about more general themes, particularly “Uncle John” and the moodily magnificent “Drunken Barber’s Hand” that the album really starts to soar. The album’s full of powerful, gut-wrenching songs that evoke the spirit of heartland America with imagery and playing that are equally powerful and simple. 2016’s looking good already.
“Fortune” is released in the UK on Friday January 15th on Welding Rod Records.
It’s always been a bit of a mystery to me why Dean Owens hasn’t been more widely recognised as an outstanding British singer-songwriter. Despite a career with his band The Felsons and several solo albums which provided a couple of classic additions to the Scottish songbook (“Raining in Glasgow” and “Man from Leith”), before the release of his new album “Into the Sea”, Dean still wasn’t widely known, even in Scotland. It looks like this is the album to change that. In the run-up to the album’s release Dean has had well-deserved coverage across the media in Scotland and, to a lesser extent, in England.
Maybe there’s a bit of truth in the cliché about suffering for your art; 2014 was a difficult year for Dean for a variety of reasons but he’s used his work to weave the pain, the joy and the memories into an album packed with songs of love and loss; the stories of the people lost forever and the ones who are lost but still with us. “Into the Sea” is the work of a songwriter with experience of real life looking backwards to help make sense of the present, creating a lasting work of art as a result.
Some of the album’s reminiscences are triggered by objects, while others are triggered by events. The opening track, “Dora” is rooted in a family tree and a circus poster and tells the story of Dean’s grandmother and her circus background; “Closer to Home” was inspired by a letter written by a soldier on the way home from The Great War and “Kids (1979)”, a poignant story of diverging paths, is kicked off by an old photo of a school football team, while “Evergreen” starts from a holiday photo. All four songs are mixtures of happiness and sadness, reflecting the lives that most of us live.
The majority of the album’s songs are inspired by situations; “The Only One” (with Will Kimbrough’s vocal harmonies creating a nice Everly Brothers feel) and “Days Without You” both relate to the terminal illness of a friend’s partner, while “Sally’s Song (I Dreamed of Michael Marra)” combines teenage memories with a tribute to one of Scotland’s greatest songwriters. “Virginia Street” is the story of a friend’s nostalgia for happier days while “Valentine’s Day in New York” is an autobiographical piece dealing with the loneliness of spending time away from loved ones. “It Could be Worse” was the album’s problem child, coming together at the last possible moment with a bit of help from Will Kimbrough and also features as an instrumental reprise. The album’s final song (or special bonus track) is a duet with Suzy Bogguss on “I’m Pretending I Don’t Love You Anymore” featuring a bit of whistling from Dean and a nice Roy Orbison “Blue Bayou” feel.
It’s easy to underestimate the quality of an artist’s work when you see and hear a lot of them (and the Riot Squad have seen and heard a lot of Dean Owens over the last few years) so “Into the Sea”, as the first album of original material since 2012’s “New York Hummingbird” was an opportunity to take a step back and refresh the perspective. The songs tap into a rich seam of melancholy memories which work perfectly for Dean’s voice; the lyrics tug at the heartstrings while the band (Will Kimbrough, Evan Hutchings, Neilson Hubbard, Jen Gunderman, Michael Renne, David Henry, Eamon McLoughlin, Joshua Britt, Suzy Bogguss, Kim Richey and Heather Donegan) provide varied and sympathetic settings throughout. This album, for me, is the most complete and rounded piece of work that Dean Owens has produced and should be a part of any music-lover’s collection.
If you’re in the South of England and you want to see Dean playing songs from the new album, he’ll be playing at these venues in June/July:
Monday June 29 The Greys, Brighton
Wednesday July 1 Green Note, Camden
Thursday July 2 Green Note, Camden
Friday July 3 Venue TBC, Twickenham
Saturday July 4 The Hat Club, Beaconsfield
If you can’t get along to any of these gigs and still want to support Dean, why not have a look at the Kickstarter campaign for the video for his next single “Up on the Hill”? There are loads of ways to contribute and lots of goodies available.
“Into the Sea” is out now on Drumfire Records.
It’s been a while since the last Dean Owens record, but that doesn’t mean he’s been doing nothing; far from it. Apart from the regular live shows (solo and with Deer Lake) and producing the wonderful Ags Connolly debut album, “How About Now”, he’s also been in Nashville recording his next album “Into the Sea” to be released next year on Drumfire Records. As a little taster for that album, the “No Man’s Land” EP is released on November 10. The timing of the release is significant as the subject matter of two of the songs is the effect of war on ordinary, everyday people.
“Closer to Home” was inspired by a letter written by a soldier returning from the First World War and deals with emotions of returning from a situation where terrible things have happened and the difficulty of dealing with the approaching reconciliations. The verses are sparsely delivered with mainly acoustic guitar backing while the choruses bring in the full band including accordion and a beautifully simple but effective piano hook.
“Seed the Roses” is much more sombre, minor-key piece dealing with the horrors and brutality of human conflict but still carrying the underlying message that, ultimately, flowers will grow on the battlefield. Harrowing, but a superb song all the same. “Forgotten Shadows”, co-written with Neilson Hubbard, is a bitter-sweet reminiscence of a perfect day and another reminder of the transience of human life.
The closing track on the EP is a solo live version of “Lost Time” from Dean’s cracking “New York Hummingbird” album. It’s one of my favourite songs from that album (although, to be fair, they’re all great songs) and it works well with only Dean’s acoustic guitar as accompaniment. The message is simple: ‘You can’t make up for lost time’.
It’s fair to say that the subject matter suits Dean’s song-writing style (as he says himself, somewhere between melancholy and miserable) and the war songs are powerful and, in turn, thought-provoking and disturbing. As a bonus, the cover art, from an original painting by Edinburgh-based artist and photographer, Philip Braham, captures the mood of the EP perfectly. It’s not an easy listen at times, but it is a rewarding one.
Out November 10 on Drumfire Records.