Album of the Week, May 19: Industrial Lullaby by Stephen Fearing
May 19, 2013 Leave a comment
Stephen Fearing was born in Vancouver, BC in 1963 and raised in Dublin, Ireland. He absorbed the rich musical heritage of his adopted country before returning to Canada in 1981, where he began pursuing a musical career. With a strong, deep voice and a distinctive guitar style, Fearing began to make a name for himself in folk circles. He performed regularly and released a cassette-only album eventually signing with a Canadian label. His debut, Out to Sea, emerged to critical acclaim in 1988. After two more albums and extensive road work — both solo and as support for a wide variety of folk acts. He wrote a number of songs while on the road and after an extended break assembled his most powerful album.
|Label||True North||Release Date||September 1997|
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Like much of Fearing’s output, Industrial Lullaby is introspective and personal. It also reflects his sense of the world around him and the power of the privileged to determine the lives of those less fortunate. It makes for a powerful mix, and he brings all his musical and lyrical strengths to bear. He also enlists a number of strong collaborators, notably producer Colin Linden and occasional co-writer Tom Wilson.
The album opens with The Upside Down, a potent lament on the fate of the working class. The first words of the disc, “I just don’t get it,” set the stage for the journey to come. With a strong band backing him up, Fearing turns his aching vocals to the plight of the oppressed, merging the personal with the universal and getting things started on just the right note. Anything You Want changes the focus and reminds us that even a serious folky can have a sense of humor. It’s a whimsical but biting reminder of the kind of power that money can buy and the ridiculous excesses that it can lead to. Fearing’s vocals strike just the right tone, making this pair work beautifully together.
The title track is a dark ode to the kind of transient life that faces industrial laborers as manufacturing is moved overseas in the name of profit. Unlike his usual complex lyrics, these words are spare, capturing the desperation and tentative means of the worker while retaining a painful sense of humanity. As a lovely counterpoint, Home is a testament to having a place to land and feel centered. Clearly reflective of a singer’s life on the road, Fearing crafts a lyric universal enough to fit any traveller’s ache.
Written with Canadian legend Willie P. Bennett, Coryanna is a sad song of a doomed romance. Delivered with minimal instrumentation, it’s a spare and haunting tune. Long Suffering Waltz is one of two instrumentals on the album, a short piece penned by Fearing and showcasing his stellar guitar work against a lovely violin counterpart.
Politics and privilege re-emerge in Blind Indifference, an angry song that fits in the best protest folk traditions. With gospel-tinged chorus and a whirlwind of energy, it’s one of the most demanding songs on the album and a perfect testament to the challenges Fearing highlights. Dog On A Chain looks more closely at personal responsibility. Deftly using his lower range, Fearing turns in a perfectly mournful vocal as he reflects on “all the mistakes I have made.” Margo Timmins of Cowboy Junkies provides a beautiful harmony vocal, adding to the texture of the song nicely. Man O’War is a ballad in the old military tradition, using the old tales of conscription and combat as a backdrop for modern life and loss.
The album’s highlight — and one of Fearing’s finest songs — is So Many Miles Away. A part of the long musician-on-the-road tradition, it rises above its company in Fearing’s capable hands. Musically flawless, it merges hope, love, and loneliness in a wonderful package. Fearing’s wonderful sense of lyric is also at hand as he presents one beautiful image after another, as when he notes the sunlight glinting from cars “cuts the thread of winter from the ground.” It’s a brilliant song and by itself is worth the price of admission.
All the King’s Horses is another look at everyman’s complicity in the political mess wrought by the powerful. It’s followed by the second instrumental, a wonderful reading of Robert’s Waterloo which showcases Fearing’s guitars nicely. The album wraps up with When the World Was A Well, a darkly lovely song that insists we all do what we can to heal the world. Recognizing the countervailing forces from the previous tracks, it insists we not surrender but make our best efforts. Once again showing off Fearing’s resonant voice, it serves as a modern, secular hymn and leaves us with our clear charge.
FURTHER LISTENING: All of Fearing’s solo albums have something special to offer. The Assassin’s Apprentice has some of his finest lyrics and musical work, but is a bit inconsistent. That’s How I Walk is much more consistent but a bit slick and doesn’t quite have the strong peaks. Fearing has worked extensively with Colin Linden and Tom Wilson as Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. Initially assembled to record a Willie P. Bennett tribute, they enjoyed their collaboration enough to tour and record regularly. Their finest offering is 2003’s Bark, a nice mix of originals and covers that shows off the contributions of all three performers.