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"][/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.
2. Yellow Jacket
3. The Finest Kind
4. Beguiling Eyes
5. The Bells of Morning
6. Turn Out The Lights
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