Tom Ovans – The Cure (2023)
The Cure is Tom Ovans’ second album in two years following a six-year break, which finds the Boston-born singer-songwriter’s vintage Dylan vocals in fine fettle. It’s a one-man show with Ovans on guitars, harmonica, mandolin, bass and percussion, with a hefty 17 largely narrative-based songs variously about loving, leaving, outlaws, ageing, mortality and more.
Things kick off with the uptempo strummed title track where, “The clouds are hanging heavy/Above the Paradise Motel”, and, thinking of staying but knowing he has to go, the lyrics look back on a life of loss and failure (“We sang in the parks/And we sang in the bars/We gave it all we had/But we never did get too far”), working in a reference to the ghost of Phil Ochs and hurt being a good reason for not quitting “Cause I love the pain too much/To ever take the cure”.
‘Love gone bad and lost’ veins several tracks, among them Gonna Miss You (“What’s good what’s bad it’s all the same/When the love you grab just turns into pain/You look up you look down it’s all very clear/You say what you want then you just disappear… You go where you go and I’ll do what I must/For God only knows who’s left here to trust/And I stand in the wind with my hat in my hand/Trying to remember what I’ll never understand”) while harmonica haunts the gravelly early Dylan blues Lazy Driver and another tale of misfortune (“I got me a wife back in Hollywood/But we both got addicted things didn’t turn out no good/So I took down my gun and man I robbed me a store…Well I left her all the money then I walked out the door”).
Remaining on the road (“driving this highway to God knows where”) and playing guitar (“and if I play it well enough maybe I might get paid”) with harmonica wailing, the basic blues Camille And The Dance Of Death echoes the opening track’s portent as there’s “Storm clouds rising above the trees/Birds of prey shivering in the breeze” and love’s the “Angel of death looking for a brand new bitch” and “a whiskey bottle thrown across the room”.
The hardness of life on the road echoes again through Higher Ground (“this road I’m traveling on/Has all but left me for dead”) but, couched in slow strummed Texicali balladry, while there’s hurt in separation (“We may live in the same memories/But we live in different towns”) there’s also a warm wistfulness (“I remember a sunset/Shining in your eyes/And I won’t ever forget/The day we said goodbye/And all the hours in between/Somehow we get on with our lives …my thoughts they never end/They keep coming back to you/And if I ever listen/To a heart that pounds/You know that will be the day/I’ll be standing on higher ground”).
Thoughts of mortality make their first appearance with the steady blues guitar riff and harmonica of Fading Light (“I’m going down this highway/It seems to be my very last friend/But my bones are getting weary/I must be getting near the end”), but defiant to the end (“they say I’m too old/And my best days have gone/Yeah they say I’m so old/And my time has come and gone/Well it may be true/But I just keep pushing on”) with him “standing in the shadows/In this fading light”. A similar theme of being adrift (“I don’t know what to say/And I don’t know what to think/It seems like I’ve lost my way/And I’ve had too much to drink”) and time running out (“I hear the bells ringing/Tolling for the dawn/And I hear the captain singing/One last drunken song/For the lights have all come down/And the party’s all but over”) pervades Like Some Old Irish Rover, but, as the title suggests, with a definite musical nod to Irish traditional rambling folk and a vein of social comment as he asks “Is it all for the money/Is it all for the greed/With so many sick and hungry/Is this the world we need”.
Similarly, commentary on right-wing religion, politics and socioeconomics also informs the urgent driving Jesus Wears A Six Gun (“Hey girl don’t cross that line/We got laws, we got fines/You best better turn around/Get yourself heaven bound”) and Earth Quake (“I got me job/It don’t pay too much/A man gets older/And he runs out of luck…My wife kisses me/Sends me on my way/She’s got a job too/But at half the pay”) that also references Trump (“Well there’s a man in the White House/He tells a lot of lies/But people sure love him/Don’t ask me why”). And, capturing the American zeitgeist on paranoia and hate, there’s the decidedly unnerving There’s A Man (“There’s a man in the crowd/Looking for someone to blame/You better watch what you say/Cause honey there’s a man/There’s a man on the street/There’s a man on the wall/There’s a man through the door/There’s a man down the hall/There’s a man in your room/With a gun in his hand”) and Stranger In This Town (“Once I was just like you/With a family and home…I’ve been living on the road/I don’t mean nobody harm/I ain’t looking for no fight…I’m just trying to get free/From all the heartache and strife/And the troubles in my head/I’m a stranger in this town/Please don’t shoot me dead”).
Ovans is always at his best when he takes on the storyteller mantle, and there are three narrative-based numbers that rank with his very best. Set in a bar to harmonica, acoustic guitar and echoes of John Prine, Blame It On The Rain is another reflection on failure and fuck ups (“You’re listening to the jukebox/But you just still don’t understand/How the years have left you/A king without a queen/How the years have left you/Just a joker in a dream/You can blame it on the road/You can blame it on the city/You can blame on bad luck/Bad women and whiskey/But deep down in your heart/The truth makes it plain/You’re just another fool/Trying to blame it on the rain”) that ends on the desolate image of “Now you reach down in your pocket/To find one more drink/But the further that you dig/The deeper that you sink/You’ll stumble home alone/Through these dark and empty streets/And you’ll lay back on your bed/But you know you’ll find no peace”.
Also set in a bar, with a droll lengthy spoken intro about recording the song, supposedly written by someone else, to try and grab the youth demographic, the friskier train rhythm chug and harmonica-coloured talking blues Ballad Of A Bloody Nose recounts how, as he leaves, “somebody called my name and grabbed my sleeve/“Could you please leave a tip” I said “Gee it ain’t that I’m cheap/It’s just that I’m having trouble and I need work done on my teeth”/I was walking my way home without a thing on my mind/When I heard footsteps from somewhere behind/I said “What do you want?” I didn’t say no more/The lights went out somebody had slammed my door/Two black eyes and a fistful of teeth”.
Thirdly comes the slow-picked Mercy Street (which suggests a slower Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues), which moves from themes of moral (“the priest was praying/On his aching feet/Ah but he looked towards you/With a Bible in his hand/But when he tried to speak/He could no longer stand/For he fell beneath the weight/Of his lust, of his faith”) and social (“Where the rich and the powerful/Crush the poor and the weak/And shots rang out/And a woman screamed/The headlines read/The end of a dream”) collapse to a personal epiphany of despair (“I sat in a bar/With a bottle of Rye/And I looked in the mirror/And I looked in my eyes/It was then and there I knew/The awful truth, my love for you”).
It’s not all broken and resigned. As he reaches the close, two numbers bring hope and light, first with Looking In Your Eyes, where “I can lose my breath/Forget all those things/That I’ve come to regret… I know for sure it’s true/Your love for me/And my love for you… I know now there’s no turning back/It’s you and me baby/All the way down this track”, and, finally, the brief My Ship’s A Coming where, while returning to the theme of mortality, he draws on the old time spiritual folk tradition of death as the dawn of a new life (“Another day has begun/Shadows are casting/This moment’s everlasting/Watching the birds fly/But my time is running/My ship’s a coming/So long, so long good bye”). Fifteen albums in, while gaining new admirers with each release, Ovans seems unlikely to progress beyond his cult status, but those who have discovered him along the journey can be assured that this is further proof that he continues to be one of the finest troubadours of his generation.
Many thanks Green