Stephen Fearing,
The Man Who Married Music
(True North, 2009)

Stephen Fearing is active on Canada's music scene as both a solo performer and a member of the roots-rock band Blackie & The Rodeo Kings (see my review in this space on 9 May 2009). The Man Who Married Music -- which sounds like the title of some venerable folk tale but is also the title of an autobiographical song, a very nice one -- is a self-selected "best of," consisting of Fearing's favorite cuts from the eight albums he has issued under his own name over more than two decades.

In common with some other, older singer-songwriters I hear these days, Fearing brings Richard Thompson, a huge influence on what one might call post-folk artists, to mind. The songs are structured broadly like ballads (in the folk sense) but are infused with pop and rock influences. The lyrics address the anxious concerns of a grown-up who sees the shadows darkening all around him. Sentimentality is nowhere to be found, and hope, what there is of it, is of the sobered kind. Perhaps because he's more polite than Thompson, he offers up "Turn Out the Lights" as opposed to Thompson's "Shoot Out the Lights," though -- when I think about it -- it occurs to me that "Turn Out" could have been written by the late Stan Rogers. I can almost hear him singing it.

Like Thompson, Fearing is a master of the acoustic guitar, conveying sounds rich in mood and emotion, perfectly matched to the mostly angst-ridden words he's singing. Listen in particular to the live "Bells of Morning" and "Dog on a Chain/James Medley," where the only instrument is his guitar. (The second piece, by the way, segues from a stark Anglo-Celtic ballad melody to a jazzy instrumental reinvention of "Jesse James.") Another live cut, "The Longest Road," evokes his history as a Canadian -- a sincerely felt and powerfully realized song, as good as anything here and devoid of patriotic kitsch. It's what love of country is to a thinking adult -- the place where your life happened and to which you are tied in ways you don't even know -- and not easy to put into a song. Another live outing, "The Big East West," dreamily conjures up Canada's vast spaces.

Opening cuts "Home" and "Yellowjacket" (the latter co-written with Tom Wilson) are uncharacteristically Beatlesque, perhaps causing someone unfamiliar with Fearing's work to get the wrong impression of what is to follow. What follows is evidence that Fearing does the much-dissed singer-songwriter profession proud. Hearing this engaging recording, I forget how much -- at least as a general proposition (imagine qualifying asterisks here) -- I am inclined to detest those employed in that line of work. Fearing, who has much to say and a pro's gift at saying it, is doing exactly what he should be doing. Anybody who hears him is a beneficiary of that career choice.

review by
Jerome Clark

8 August 2009

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