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Stephen Fearing

True North

Stephen Fearing is the second-best-known artist on Canada’s True North Records, home to fellow thinking-person’s Canuck Bruce Cockburn for some 30 years. But like curling and the metric system, Fearing enjoys far more success on the kindler, gentler side of the border. There seems to be no reason for his relative obscurity on the Stateside new-folk scene, however: He’s got the singer-songwriter hat trick (guitar prowess, pleasant voice, taut compositions), and his work is fairly accessible. Dark? Sometimes, but in a genre in which divorce, depression, and death can be smart career moves, that’s a given. Perhaps what’s kept prospective listeners at bay—even as it attracts a certain breed of fan—is Fearing’s prolixity. In an interview just before the release of his fourth album, Industrial Lullaby, he told me: “I’m trying to find a way to still have songs that are thick, that are dense, but at the same time there’s some space in them; they’re not clubbing you over the head with images and metaphors.” Nearly five years later, Fearing’s fifth studio album, That’s How I Walk, shows that he’s still trying, notably on “Rave On Captain,” which tosses Clinton, Dubya, and capitalist crassness into a cocktail shaker: The bright melodic garnish doesn’t hide the fact that the drink would have gone down better with fewer ingredients. But less isn’t always more here: What we don’t get on That’s How I Walk are uninterrupted stretches of Fearing’s note-perfect fingerstyle guitar-playing, a talent indulged on earlier albums with instrumentals such as “Carsten” on 1988’s Out to Sea. What we do get, however, are lush, sophisticated production by Fearing and Colin Linden (Fearing’s bandmate in Canadian roots-rock outfit Blackie and the Rodeo Kings) and Fearing’s characteristically thoughtful songwriting and alluring baritone. That’s How I Walk shines brightest in its most introspective moments: a love song so classically simple you’ll think Fearing took a time machine to Tin Pan Alley to retrieve it (“When My Baby Calls My Name”), a gentle view from inside the bell jar (“Me & Mr. Blue,” co-written with Ian Thornley), and the lonesomely horny “Glory Train” (by Fearing and Brian denHertog). If it isn’t the 39-year-old Fearing’s best album—that gold goes to Lullaby—neither is it the work of a coasting midcareer musician; rather, That’s How I Walk is an exploratory voyage helmed by a far braver captain than most of the guitar-troubadour expeditions out there. —Pamela Murray Winters