Stephen Fearing,
That's How I Walk
(Rounder, 2002)

Fifteen years ago Stephen Fearing was the bright new talent on the Canadian folk scene. A Canadian who had also lived in Ireland, he had just a bit of the authentic Celt in him and a rare understanding of urban Canada. Along with James Keelaghan, he was part of the generation that promised to make it possible for us in this country to survive the tragic early loss of Stan Rogers.

His first wide-circulation album, Out to Sea, featured a distinctive voice, fine songwriting and guitar playing that was creative and accomplished. Songs like "Dublin Bay," "Tryin' Times," "Welfare Wednesday," "Beguiling Eyes" and "Carsten" are unforgettable moments from that album. On Out to Sea, he painted pictures. "Welfare Wednesday" was a scathing attack on a provincial government that called itself Social Credit but in reality left people to rot in Canada's poorest neighborhood, Vancouver's downtown east side. There are moments on that album that literally make your hair stand up, because you get the feeling -- rightly or wrongly -- that Fearing knows that side of life a little to well. He was an artist with a lot to say and the tools to express it.

I can't claim to have followed his career closely since then. But I was excited to have the opportunity to review a new recording, That's How I Walk.

How times have changed. Fearing's exceptional voice and guitar are still there, but buried under layers of production and instrumentation that leave me cold. I suppose he has been reaching out to a wider audience, and fair enough. But where are the great songs? Has Fearing lost that talent, or is it buried somewhere under Colin Linden's (and his own) production?

Fearing also seems to have lost his voice. Not his singing voice -- he can still sing and play -- but the individual artist's voice that made him such a challenging new performer back in the late '80s.

Unfortunately, I see nothing at all new or interesting on offer in That's How I Walk. The lyrics lack the stark concreteness of his earlier work. It doesn't differ from a hundred other recordings I have heard. Sometimes high production values and lavish instrumentation are cover for the fact that there is not much underneath.

The album is full of pleasant and upbeat, but generic pop-rock tunes, like "The Finest Kind," backed by a professional rhythm section lacking sensitivity, and a Garth Hudson/The Band-influenced organ (Richard Bell). Where Fearing's distinctive voice and guitar are featured, it is in meandering songs like "Town Called Jesus," that baffle the listener. "Me and Mr. Blue" is a nice tune, but it sounds like Dire Straits. (I want it to sound like Stephen Fearing!) "Rave on Captain" appears to me to be a failed political commentary, with too many metaphors and not enough clarity. The album as a whole does not seem to have a coherent theme or a "reason for being" other than a collection of songs.

My advice to those interested: instead of starting here with Fearing, go back and listen to Out to Sea. If you love that one, as I do, then follow him through his career step by step and see how he arrives at this juncture. That's How I Walkis not a bad recording -- far from it -- just a disappointing effort from an artist capable of so much, that seems to have run out of things to say.

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 28 June 2003

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