Sinner’s Shrine and desert dreams
Sinner’s Shrine (El Tiradito) in Tucson Arizona, serves as inspiration for the title of Dean Owens new album. Its history runs through the album, a sinner who died for love, prayers of the heartbroken, the dispossessed. The deserts of America have long held a place in Dean’s heart. That love is given full weight on ‘Sinner’s Shrine’ with piping horns, melodic guitar and evocative lyrics. Add in members of Tucson based ‘desert noir’ band Calexico and other guests including Grant -Lee Phillips and Gaby Moreno* and the result is the absolute delight that is ‘Sinner’s Shrine‘. (*see full list of credited musicians below)
The album was recorded at WaveLab Studio in Tucson Jan 2020) and is a joint release by London’s Eel Pie Records and Continental Record Services (Netherlands) out on 18 Feb 2022. It’s been a journey through the pandemic to get to this point, and Owens is justifiably excited:
“To see Sinner’s Shrine finally getting its release into the world is a very special moment for me. Working with the guys from Calexico on this record in Tucson was a magical time, a time before lockdown and the pandemic. We recorded it out in the land of the Sonoran Desert and it almost feels like it’s been buried in the sand for the past eighteen months or so. It’s time now to brush away that sand and share with everyone.”
The opening track ‘Arizona’, co-written with Nels Andrews, sets the scene for the album. Horns meld with driving guitars and pedal, steel, and lyrics invoke the imagery of borders, barbed wire and barrios.
It’s followed by one of my favourite tracks, ‘Hopeless Ghosts,‘ with Grant-Lee Phillips on harmony vocals. This song is such a MOOD. It’s inspired by Townes Van Zandt who, when asked why his songs were so sad, replied that he had a few that weren’t sad, that were just about hopeless situations. Owens vocals capture the melancholic hopelessness, perfectly offset by Phillips vocals and evocative mariachi horns.
‘Sinner’s Shrine‘ is rich with themes of love and lust, sinners and saints, the displaced, the wanderers and border ghosts. ‘Barbed Wire’s Still Weeping’ for instance, captures the struggle and injustices along the border, given weight by the force of Calexico’s talents and Owen’s eery vocals.. Similarly, ‘La Lomita‘ tells the threat of tearing down a place of tradition and refuge, but in an entirely different way to Barbed Wire. This song is full of bustle and life, Joey Burns (Calexico) guiding and shaping the song in celebration of La Lomita‘s importance rather than the imminent threat.
Whimsy and beauty
‘Here Comes Paul Newman’ is an instrumental track featuring some fine whistling from Mr Owens. It’s also a nod to one of his favourite Newman movies “Hud” and also to the spaghetti western soundtracks of Ennio Morrocone.
The beautiful ‘Compañera’ recalls the peace found in places of worship and is perfected by the addition of Tony Pró on guitarron and Tom Hagerman on strings. I keep coming back to this track, it is both haunting and sweet, a love song of sorts, and utterly compelling.
‘The Land of the Hummingbird’ has a sensual Cumbian feel, a fictional tale imagined by Owens, sharing vocals with Gaby Moreno here. Moreno’s rendering in Spanish adds to the languorous tempo of the song. It struck me while listening, the melding of vocals on this album is as rich as the music, adding to the whole. Joey agrees:
“One of the standout moments for me working on this album was finding out how well Dean’s and my vocal blended. It reminded me that the world is small and that our link through music, regardless of our background, highlights the fact that we are all more closely related and that these bonds are still good medicine for these times”
The last song of the album is also the first single release ‘After the Rain’ (4th February 2022). It’s an old song revisited, Dean says, and fitting that it was recorded in the land of photographer Ansel Adams. It was one of his prints which originally inspired the song. It is a gentle love song with a sense of hope for the future, beautifully rendered by Owens and his band of talented musicians.
Dean says: “One of my oldest songs, originally known as Shine Like The Road After The Rain, I was strumming away on my nylon string guitar one day and started singing it. It felt right again. New and fresh. I made a demo and sent it to Joey. He got right back to me and said ‘you have to record this one’. I’m so glad we did.“
It’s a fitting closer for this emotionally rich work. The remaining songs ‘New Mexico’, ‘We Need Us’, ‘Summer in Your Eyes’ are equally worthy, and honestly I could write about this album all day, The true wonder is in the listening though, and I recommend you immerse yourself in the magic immediately.
A prelude to Sinner’s Shrine –The Desert Trilogy EPs – were released throughout 2021, attracting glowing reviews across genres, sharpening appetites for the full album. The trio, The Burning Heart, Sand and Blood and Ghosts, each contain teasers from Sinner’s Shrine, as well as other original songs from Owens, again with that desert flavour. They are well worth a listen in their own right (‘Mother Road’ from Ghosts, WOW.)
A little bit about Dean Owens…
Applying a genre to Dean’s catalogue is no easy thing. He certainly gives more than a passing nod to his Celtic heritage, and of course ‘Sinner’s Shrine‘ and his Desert Trilogy are a homage to his love of the rich musical tradition found in the desert sands of Americana and desert noir. The Southerners, one of Dean’s collaborations, released their first Owens penned tune ‘Dancing On’ in 2021, leaning into pub rock, and he easily traverses folk, alt-country and rock and roll across his seven studio albums to date. The music shifts where Dean’s muse takes him, and the lyrics are always those of a storyteller, weaving tales from life and imagination.
Dean is also long term pals with Will Kimbrough, who’s played on most of his albums (and Dean on one of Will’s). They won UK Song Of the Year with the title track of Dean’s Southern Wind album (UK AMA Awards 2019). He’s toured with The Mavericks, Grant-Lee Phillips, Will Hoge and opened for artists including Roseanne Cash, Jason Isbell and Patty Griffin. Owens also collaborated on the Buffalo Blood music/film project recorded in the desert of New Mexico.
Irvine Welsh describes Dean as ‘Scotland’s most engaging and haunting singer-songwriter’ . That is true, and while Owens heart resides in his Celtic homeland, his talent has a far wider reach. With ‘Sinner’s Shrine’ he belongs to the world, and we are all the richer for it. Your music collection will be complemented by the addition of this album, I promise you.
As ever my mantra is ‘support the artist BUY the music’, doubly true here, because this is one talented artist offering up some excellent music for your enjoyment.
Listen to Dean Owens
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|The Tucson Core: |
Dean Owens singing, whistling, nylon string guitar, Nashville high strung guitar
Joey Burns upright bass, electric guitar, bass guitar, accordion, piano, vibes, backing vocals
John Convertino drums, percussion, thunder drum
Jacob Valenzuela all trumpets; backing vocals (track 6)
Sergio Mendoza piano, accordion, percussion (tracks 7, 8, 10); backing vocals (track 6)
Tom Hagerman strings (tracks 4, 6, 9), accordion (track 2)
Paul Niehaus pedal steel (tracks 1, 2, 5, 6, 11)
Naïm Amor electric guitar (tracks 7, 8, 9)
Antonio Pró guitarron (track 4)
Craig Schumacher Farfisa (track 11)
Thomas Collison organ (track 11)
Grant-Lee Phillips harmony vocal on The Hopeless Ghosts
Gaby Moreno duet vocal on Land Of The Hummingbird