GARETH OWEN – I’m Out Of This Place (own label)

I'm Out Of This PlaceSix months or so after the release of his Rolling By CD, Gareth Owen’s new album I’m Out Of This Place is released on November 23rd 2018. Again, it’s a collection of story songs, all written by Gareth, very much in the Americana/country idiom. Gareth takes lead vocals, ably supported by Matt Park (pedal steel, bass, banjo, percussion, backing vocals), Lincoln Grounds (acoustic and baritone guitars, backing vocals), Rob Kelly (bass guitar), Paddy Milner (piano) and SJ Mortimer (backing vocals).

Here’s the track list:

  1. ‘Waltzing Kid Pt 1’
  2. ‘Ribbon Of Sky-Blue Lace’
  3. ‘Julie’
  4. ‘The Preacher’
  5. ‘Marie’
  6. ‘Waltzing Kid Pt 2’
  7. ‘Rosalita’
  8. ‘Out Of This Place’
  9. ‘Waltzing Kid’/’Raise A Glass’
  10. ‘Happy With That’

The prevailing tone on this album is of quintessentially country laidback melancholia, but there are moments here that hint at something more adventurous: for instance, the brief introduction to ‘Waltzing Kid Pt 1’, the dissonant piano linking the last verse of ‘Waltzing Kid’ and ‘Raise A Glass’, and even the biting wordplay in ‘Happy With That’.

Gareth Owen brings the same writing skills to his songs that he does to his verse and prose. His world-weary vocals are exquisitely suited to this material, and the supporting vocals and instrumental backing are always sympathetic: the pedal steel intro to ‘Marie’ is particularly attractive. SJ Mortimer’s vocals are more restrained than the backing vocals on the earlier album, and to my ear more suited to these songs.

The gunfighter ballad ‘Waltzing Kid Pt 1′ is spread across three tracks in a manner that might remind you of the Eagles’ variations on ‘Doolin-Dalton’ and ‘Desperado’ on the underrated Desperado album. This does allow the listener to focus on different elements of the story, with enough changes in instrumentation and delivery to hold interest, especially with the segue into ‘Raise A Glass’ in track 9. I applaud Gareth’s decision to sing this expanded version of the song straight: if you’ve previously heard it as performed by Gareth’s OTT alter ego Virg Clenthills, you might be surprised at how affecting it is.

‘The Preacher’ picks up the pace a little with a story song that might have appealed to Frankie Laine or Marty Robbins, benefiting from a full production dominated by pedal steel (nicely played), and deep-throated guitar somewhat reminiscent of Duane Eddy. ‘Rosalita’ benefits from a tinge of 60s/70s country rock.

While most of the songs here will be familiar to fans of Gareth’s alter ego, ‘Happy With That’ is the only track where Virg manages to make his presence felt, both in the spoken introduction and in the sardonic lyrics that characterize this insight into a seriously dysfunctional family. It makes a nice upbeat (in a black sort of way) ending to a fairly low-key selection of songs. If I have a reservation about this set, it’s that – in the absence of Virg’s onstage patter – it might have benefited from the insertion of one or two of Gareth’s more lyrically and/or rhythmically upbeat songs. However, it’s still a good snapshot of his songwriting skills, and any one of these songs represent a creditable performance.

David Harley

Artist’s website: www.garethowen.com

‘Marie’ – the Virg Clenthills’ version:

GARETH OWEN – Rolling By (own label)

Rollng ByWhen I first moved to South Shropshire a few years ago, I found myself living just a couple of doors away from writer and broadcaster Gareth Owen. And then I realized that I was also living by country legend-in-his-own-mind Virg Clenthills, Gareth’s country-singing alter ego. I even played guitar for Virg occasionally, and even acting as body double – well, picking-hand double –on a Virg video. So when Gareth’s CD Rolling By rolled by my mailbox, I was expecting at the very least a collection of excellent songs, and I wasn’t disappointed.

All the songs and lead vocals here are Gareth’s, ably backed by producer Ed Begley on keyboards and backing vocals, Ruby Turner on backing vocals, James Kitchman on guitars, Matt Park on pedal steel, Ruth Goller on basses and backing vocals, and Tony Bianco on drums and percussion.

  1. ‘Lady Whiskey’ is a desperate story of a man in the process of losing everything to alcoholism.
  2. ‘Ashes And Diamonds’ is a quintessential country and western ballad. Nicely done.
  3. Perhaps it’s because I’ve recently reviewed Forever Words that ‘Nowhere’ reminds me a little of Johnny Cash, both the song and the delivery. But it’s an excellent song and performance in its own right.
  4. ‘Walk Out The Door’ has some of the feel of early country/rock and roll crossover songs like Hank Williams’s ‘Move It On Over’. I particularly like the pedal steel here.
  5. ‘Jesse James And The Barber’ is very much in the Virg Clenthills mould, quirky and facetious, much of it spoken rather than sung. Thematically it might remind you of ‘I’ve Danced With A Man Who’s Danced With A Girl, Who’s Danced With The Prince Of Wales’, yet it has a serious undertone that Farjeon’s 1927 song never aspired to.
  6. ‘Nothing Better To Do’ is one of those femme fatale/Jezebel/devil-woman songs, performed effectively enough.
  7. ‘Dream River’ is another heart-tugging country ballad.
  8. ‘Telling Lies Like This’ is a little rockier, a little reminiscent of Dylan on recent albums like Together Through Life.
  9. ‘Before I Get To Heaven’ is, for me, the best song on the CD, telling the story of the last hours of Hank Williams set against sparse keyboards and acoustic bass.
  10. ‘Rolling By’ is a song of reminiscence with a catchy chorus. A good end to the album.

It’s no surprise that one of Gareth’s influences was Tom T. Hall, a country singer noted for his storytelling in song. That said, some of his lighter material – such as ‘Jesse James And The Barber’ here – is also somewhat reminiscent of Shel Silverstein, though Gareth’s vocals are nearer to a lighter-toned Johnny Cash than Silverstein’s off-the-wall vocalizing.

While the CD is issued under Gareth’s real name, there’s a lot of Virg here, in both the repertoire and the vocal delivery. Without Virg’s patter, the darkness behind some of these stories has more of the impact they deserve. Perhaps the slightly OTT vocal delivery here and there hints at the parodic drama that makes Gareth’s alter ego’s stagecraft so entertaining, though. Which makes me wonder whether Virg should get a CD of his own, rather than selfie-bombing Gareth’s. Nevertheless, this would be a worthy souvenir of a Virg/Gareth gig. And a wider range of country lovers might be enthralled to hear what sometimes comes out of the hills of South Shropshire.

David Harley

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Artist’s website: www.garethowen.com

It’s hard to find videos of Gareth so here’s Virg Clenthills with ‘A Song For Hank Williams’: