Friday, February 27, 2009

CD Review: Stephen Fearing - The Man Who Married Music: The Best of Stephen Fearing

It was the late 90's, around the time of his first album Industrial Lullaby,  that I first heard Stephen Fearing. He was on TV,  TVO's In Studio if memory serves me correctly. His playing was virtually classical, with two and three separate lines of music weaving across his finger picked guitar. Yet unlike any classical player I had ever seen, he was singing as well as playing this complex music. I've been a fan since.

[caption id="attachment_121" align="alignright" width="300" caption="The Best of Stephen Fearing"]The Best of Stephen Fearing[/caption]

I saw him live once, in one of the most amazing shows I have ever been to. It was in a music store in Fearing's hometown of Guelph. Expensive hand-made acoustic guitars lined the wall of Folkway Music, adding ambiance and sympathetic harmony while Fearing played acoustically and un-amplified for about 50 lucky fans. It was one of those deeply poetic moments when art reaches down and touches you deeply. A fabulous performance that left everybody feeling overawed.

Fearings problem has always been in his recorded output. Put simply, additional instrumentation, added harmonies and basic production mean that his virtuosic guitar playing gets either simplified or lost, his percussive right hand technique disappears for a drummer, always it seems, to the songs detriment. Buy the live CD would be my advice, not a studio one.

Putting his recent Best of CD, The Man Who Married Music: The Best of Stephen Fearing on the stereo, it was a pleasure to hear the bulk of the music was stripped down to it's basic elements the way a Stephen Fearing song should. Sure, some of the music is overly produced and subsequently uninteresting. And yes, Fearing's habit of lyrically reaching unnecessarily for profundity and depth is on full display. But that does not mean this is not a very good CD.

I always wonder how a guy like Fearing chooses songs for a best of CD. If your Dan Hill or Bruce Cockburn it's easy enough, you pick the songs that get, or got, radio airplay. But what if you rarely get radio time? Pick your favourites? The ones the fans tell you they love? Flip a coin? Either way, Fearing chose reasonably well, and the amount of paired down songs that made the collection tell you that Fearing understands his strengths as well as anyone.

The dichotomy between the two types of songs, heavily acoustic and heavily produced, is no more apparent than the collection's second song, Yellow Jacket. The verses are stripped back, that right hand percussion and delicate finger-picking over a strongly melodic vocal line. At the chorus, however, in comes orchestration and extra vocals, and a nice song begins to fall down. It's not enough to ruin the song, but it hurts the effort.

Under no circumstances should it be said that all tracks with band are not good, as someone throwing the CD on and playing from the beginning will quickly find out. The opening track, Home, is a mid tempo, almost poppy piece, crossing between Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young in a song that could easily get heavy radio rotation. And it is, for all my complaints about what makes a good Stephen Fearing song, a very listenable piece.

But the collections strengths are in it's simple numbers: The Bells of Morning, played live; The Longest Road, also live; the marvellous guitar solo in Dog on a Chain/ James Melody. All predominately acoustic, all exceptional songs.

The highlight of the album is the very pretty title track The Man Who Married Music: a deeply sweet almost apologetic song to his wife, filled out wonderfully with banjo, Dobro guitar, mandolin and haunting background vocals, The Man Who Married Music is a testament to Fearing's songwriting and an example of how production can benefit his songs. All the added instrumentation complements his wonderful guitar work, layering a finely honed song from the pen of a craftsman.

If your looking to pick up some quality Canadian music, but unsure what to get, grab Stephen Fearing's The Man Who Married Music: The Best of Stephen Fearing, a solid collection of the best from one of Canada's most respected music men.

1. Home
2. Yellow Jacket
3. The Finest Kind
4. Beguiling Eyes
5. The Bells of Morning
6. Turn Out The Lights
7. Expectations
8. That's How I Walk
9. The Longest Road
10. Welfare Wednesday
11. Anything You Want
12. Dog on a Chain/ James Melody
13. The Man Who Married Music
14. The Big East West
15. No Dress Rehearsal

Available from True North Records

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Singles Scene #13

St. Jacobs: St. Jacobs is one of those little towns that have gone tourist by offering a supposed unchanged in 100 years world. The downtown offers everything from an old mill that's been renovated into a shopping outlet to a century house B&B. general-007The perfect place to find something like old records. Sadly, I have never had luck in St. Jacobs proper.

Outside of town is a farmers market/outlet centre. A great place to shop, buy fresh produce and meats, or get a cheap pair of jeans or watch strap. Beside this, there is an Antique Market, the Waterloo County Antique Warehouse. It seems like it might have records.

It is one of those place that have become so familiar, with many vendors selling their wares by way of stalls. You take merchandise from many stalls to a cash, and the guys who operate the Warehouse pays the vendors. It seems like a good business plan, but alas, they are going out of business in a month, and the last chance sale is on. Too bad too, because it does have records, and there's no hunting and pecking to find them either. The first couple of stalls have a box or two of albums, probably the fifth has a small box of singles. Lots here, but not much of interest: Glenn Miller, Pat Boone, Bobby Goldsboro. More my speed, Huey Lewis and Harry Chapin. There's even Tears Are Not Enough, the last Singles Scene I did. Other than that the Canadiana is limited to a David Foster song and Hagood Hardy's The Homecoming. I grab The Homecoming and move on, hoping I don't have to come back for the David Foster.

img0171I don't. A couple of stalls along I find "The Record Stall," one of three spread around the place. I don't need the other two as it turns out. They have stacks and stacks of albums, and a wall, A WALL of 45's. Mostly country, this discourages me, but it shouldn't. I'm here for Canadian music, not Canadian music that I like. They even have a section of Canadian country that must be 500 strong. Problem is, I'm not a big country fan, and don't have any clue who I should be looking for. I take the cowards way and look for Showdown's Rodeo Song without success. There's lots, and I do mean lots of Hank Snow, so I grab one that sounds interesting, The Wreck of the Old 97. I otherwise settle on Murray McLaughlan's The Farmer's Song.

Three songs, that's my usual haul, but this time I have gotten lucky: really lucky. Right beside the Country Canadian section is a rock section. Half the size of Canadian country, it yields a treasure of great memories.

Who remembers Shooter? I do, and I love the song I Can Dance. The Stampeders, another classic band, BTO's first single and Dan Hill with a b/side titled Canada. Great haul, and at the exit I discover the going out of business sale has me paying about half of the $2.00/record.

So I leave the Waterloo County Antique Warehouse with my greatest haul yet, seven singles and two LPS, including a Canadian entry, The Payola$ No Stranger to Danger, a really worthwhile trip.

On listening I start with the first song picked up, Hagood Hardy's The Homecoming. At 2: 29, this comes in fairly short and easy to listen to. A simple, mostly piano piece it reminds me that I haven't had a cup of tea yet today (and haven't had Red Rose in years). The Homecoming is an alright easy listening piece that inspires neither devotion or revulsion, which I guess is good when you are writing a song for a commercial.

I have little enough to say about Hank Snow, as it's not my kind of music. On Oh Brother Where Art Thou they would have called this old timey music. Wreck of the Old 97 is plain, straight forward acoustic country blues. A guitar, peddle steel and fiddle song about a train. The b/side, Hobo Bill's Last Ride is the same, if not even more of a country music cliche than the first. Not bad music, mark you, just a classic hobo riding the rails that someone mocking a country song write.

img019The Murray McLauchlan single Lose We b/w The Farmer's Song is more interesting. The Farmer's Song is one of McLauchlan's more famous pieces, but on this single, it's listed as the b side. A quick look around the internet, and it appears that Lose Me was released as a single before The Farmer's Song. So Lose Me gets listened to first. It's easy to understand why the record company thought this was the single: uptempo, more folk than country, very much of a style that people where having hits with at the time. Furthermore, McLauchlan is a quality writer, singer, musician, above many others. This song easily could have been a hit. The Farmer's Song, on the other hand, is drearier, more ballad tempo than Lose Me. It is a good song, probably a better song than Lose Me, but it's not an obvious hit. McLauchlan's ability to have a hit with such a song is a testament to his quality mentioned above.

Hold On is pre-Sometimes When We Touch Dan Hill, the first single off the album of the same name. A nice example of Hill the songwriter/guitar player, this song could be very good, but production and arrangement get in the way. One of those guys who's best when he just plays and sings, Hill lets whomever produced this mess to add far to much harmony vocals and assorted background noise. The b/side, Canada, is more along the lines. One guitar, one voice, one poignant, pretty song with no added production except a haunting background vocal on the fade out. I would take this song over the "hit" on the other side every time.

While I like Murray McLauchlan and Dan Hill, we now move on to the portion of the days find that I am looking forward to. We start the rock portion of this review with where I started as a music fan - BTO. It is not intentional that I haven't found a BTO single before now, in fact, I've been quite surprised not to find them up to now. Not just my beginning either, their beginning. Blue Collar was their first, and only single off their first album. It got the ball rolling, but it was not until their second album, released the same year, with Takin' Care of Business and Let It Ride that BTO became big. For now though, they were just another new band, with an album and a single.

Blue Collar is a curious choice for a single too. Soft, slow and jazzy, it's not an obvious hit, not in 1973, not now. That doesn't mean it's not a great song, truly a high quality musical piece that indicates this isn't just another band. But a single? If in charge, admittedly with the full perspective of hindsight, I would have chosen Give Me Your Money Please off of this album. But I wasn't, and they chose a four-and-a-half minute jazzy piece as their lead off single. A fine song that never had a chance.

img0181I actually saw BTO twice in their heyday. One of the time I saw them, good time party band Shooter opened for them. They arrived at the outdoor CNE stage in old limo, dressed like gangsters and firing off Tommy guns. A great intro and I have remembered Shooter like I have remembered no other minor opening act through the years. So it was a treat to find their one hit, Leo Sayer's I Can Dance (Long Tall Glasses). In Leo Sayer's hands it is a Vaudeville song, lacking seriousness or masculinity. Shooter take the Boogie Woogie piano, pairs it with a banjo, and turn this into a fun romp. A great little number about a traveller who happens upon a feats to find he can't eat until he dances. As the title suggests, he can't dance. He does, however, to discover he can dance, and it beats eating. Good fun, good music, good buy.

I finish off the days shopping with The Stampeder's 1974 hit, Ramona. Those un-familiar with The Stampeders and who know them only from their mega-hit Sweet City Women would be surprised by this song. A hard 70's guitar rocker, this was The Stampeders in their element. Sweet City Woman was the hit, Ramona is what they did, their day in day out music. They were, furthermore, good at it and a significant band who never made the final jump to stars. Why is anyones guess, and listening to all these years later, I have no more of an answer than before.

I leave the Waterloo County Antique Warehouse with seven Canadian singles in arguably four, maybe five different styles. My original intent of this site was to find the heart of Canadian music in the old single bins wherever they are, and what a joy to find it beating in the middle of Mennonite country.