Dean Owens: Sinner’s Shrine

Tucson, Arizona (spiritual home of iconic desert noir band Calexico, an hour from the Mexican border) is a long way from Leith, Scotland, the port area in the north of Edinburgh and roaming place of Edwyn Collins, Irvine Welsh and Dean Owens, but Sinner’s Shrine effortlessly connects the two. Recorded by Owens with musicians from Calexico at Tucson’s WaveLab Studio in January 2020, it demonstrates that authenticity is more than a matter of accent or where you’ve been born; there’s no false notes or missteps on this warm and shimmering album of Americana.

Sinner’s Shrine has taken some time to be released due to the Covid pandemic, and was preceded in 2021 by The Desert Trilogy, made up of twelve tracks from the sessions on three EPs, “The Burning Heart”, “Sand and Blood” and “Ghosts”. Only three tracks (“New Mexico”, “Here Comes Paul Newman” and “Land of the Hummingbird”) are repeated on Sinner’s Shrine, ensuring both The Desert Trilogy and Sinner’s Shrine are essential releases for fans of Owens and Calexico.

On Sinner’s Shrine, Owens captures the landscape and people of desert and border towns with expertise. The idiosyncratic “La Lomita” is populated by sinners, saints and border ghosts praying for rain. Trump’s incomplete wall may now be a pile of useless rusting steel, but here “all lost souls/make their stand/you can’t build a wall”. There’s a “wire around the heart/of everything that’s sacred” in “Arizona”, a song evoking the desperation to move on. The album evokes a sense of transience; there’s  the travel through the wilderness by the vagabond for beauty on “The Hopeless Ghosts” (with harmony vocals by the great Grant-Lee Phillips), and the narrator of “New Mexico” has to depart but regrets leaving his lover and a world of sunflowers and blue skies.

The musicians will be well known to Calexico followers; credited as “The Tucson Core”, they are Owens (singing, whistling, and on guitars), Joey Burns (upright bass, electric guitar, bass guitar, accordion, piano, vibes and backing vocals), John Convertino (drums, percussion, thunder drum), Jacob Valenzuela (trumpets) and Sergio Mendoza (piano and accordion). Their familiarity with one another may have led to the assured nature of the playing. “Compaňera” is an exercise in restraint to match the intimate story. Instrumental “Here Comes Paul Newman” could be an understated soundtrack to a mysterious Spaghetti Western (boy, Owens can whistle). “The Barbed Wire’s Still Weeping” trembles and shakes in drama. “Land Of The Hummingbird” (sung with Gaby Moreno) is a Cumbia influenced reverie.

Three relaxed but gently troubled love songs close the album. “We Need Us”, “Summer in Your Eyes” and “After the Rain” (originally recorded by The Felsons in 1996); all reflect a sense of impermanence in the world. “We Need Us” makes the point that we don’t live forever, “Summer in Your Eyes” reminds us that the seasons change, and the most hopeful track, “After the Rain” suggests with a delightful vocal that love will survive. This great album will also stand the test of time.

BUY (BANDCAMP)

Label: Eel Pie Records
Release Date: 18 FEB 2022