Stephen Fearing,
The Assassin's Apprentice
(True North, 1993)

Although Stephen Fearing writes literate, often introspective songs and his axe of choice is an acoustic guitar, he is not just another singer-songwriter. He is as much a rocker as a folky, and the sound of his albums has gotten steadily harder over the course of his career. He is also one-third of Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, a folk-rock-country outfit that has been likened by some to no less a group than The Band. Fearing's lyrics could not be farther away from rote rock fare, however, and some of his best appear on the album at hand.

Take "The Longest Road," for example. In it, Fearing chronicles a trip across Canada as a boy. The catch is that the trip was really a farewell to Canada because Fearing's mother had remarried and was relocating to Ireland. As Fearing sketches the landscapes through which the family traveled, he also depicts the anguish of a child being uprooted from everything familiar. "In a world where everyone was always leaving, I was trying to keep my fingertips on Canada," he sings. Like many of Fearing's songs, it gets even better on repeated listenings, as one can savor the nuances of its well-chosen words. The refrain of, "Oh Canada," brings the Canadian national anthem to mind, and it's hard to imagine a writer that wouldn't kill for a line like, "My heart was ever drawn to you like a tongue to a broken tooth."

Another standout is "The Life," in which Fearing tackles the subject of a musician on the road. He evokes the endless traveling, the loneliness, the frustration of a bad gig and the exhilaration that comes when a so-so performance suddenly catches fire: "Where the faces turn to listen and the energy shifts and moves, your voice goes reaching over all the people in the room." In the end, this song is for anyone who struggles to put heart and soul into an activity when the whole world seems not to care; it should be required listening for any artist, especially a discouraged one. The song's conclusion segues into the solo guitar meditation "Martin's," which is named for Martin Carthy. That, along with the quotes from "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" and "Jenny's Black E'e" that are woven into "The Life," indicates the influence of traditional music on Fearing's music.

The good writing continues through the rest of the songs on The Assassin's Apprentice. Subjects range from idealistic love ("Down the Wire") to a one-night stand ("Give It Up"), from spiritual emptiness ("The Station") to the intensity of emotions (the title track). Sharply visualized details rub shoulders with poetic flights of description. Although the album's subject is often the inner life, these are not melodically dull songs; "Down the Wire" gallops along effortlessly, while "Expectations" is filled with tension as it demands, "What do you expect of me?" The only cover is Hank Williams' "(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle," which is turned into a syncopated rave-up that Hank would never recognize. What's more, it actually works.

One could go on listing the numerous lyrical felicities on this album, but there is more to Stephen Fearing than his lyrics. He is a fine guitarist, and his playing shines on the two instrumental tracks, "Lark and Duke" and "Martin's." Sometimes he plays a resophonic guitar, which gives an atmospheric sound; he plays some electric guitar, too. Fearing is also an expressive singer who can croon or shout with equal conviction; his readings of the songs are filled with subtle inflections that enhance the words. There are a few cameos; Sarah McLachlan contributes backing vocals to "Expectations" and Richard Thompson plays electric guitar on "Down the Wire." Steve Berlin (The Blasters, Los Lobos) produced The Assassin's Apprentice, which comes across as rock with touches of folk, country, jazz and even R&B. The Assassin's Apprentice is reminiscent of John Hiatt's "family trilogy" (Bring the Family, Slow Turning and Stolen Moments) in its perceptive songwriting drawn from difficult experiences. Anyone who likes Hiatt's music would do well to check out Fearing.

In short, for an excellent album by a criminally underrated artist, one need look no further than The Assassin's Apprentice. True North recently signed a distribution deal with Rounder Records and it is to be hoped that this will lead to Fearing's albums being easier to find in the U.S. In the meantime, catch Fearing in concert or take a Canadian vacation: do whatever it takes to pick up this album.

[ by Jennifer Hanson ]
Rambles: 24 August 2002

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