Hardly Sky High
Canadian folk artist Stephen Fearing has a cachet of cool among those of a certain age. For one, earlier in his career, he famously covered the theme song (actually the traditional tune “Early One Morning”) to the long-running and much cherished Canadian children’s TV show, The Friendly Giant, which was the sort of thing that brought a tear to the eye of many kids of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s who grew up watching the program. As well, Fearing is a member of the roots rock supergroup Blackie and the Rodeo Kings along with Colin Linden and Tom Wilson, and if you’ve ever been to a summer folk festival concert in Canada, chances are that Blackie was on the bill. So Fearing is a fairly big deal in a particular genre of Canadian music, which makes his first solo album in seven years, the follow-up to 2006’s Yellowjacket, a cause of celebration. Or it would have been, had it been not for the fact that Between Hurricanes, said album (his eighth), wasn’t so below par that it nearly eliminates any expectations anyone with just a passing familiarity with Fearing’s music might have.
To be generous, this is a record that was born out of a period of intense change, both personal and professional. Fearing’s 14 year marriage dissolved shortly after the release of Yellowjacket, and Fearing would also wind up ending his partnership with his long-time record label, True North, and his manager, Bernie Finkelstein. Fearing moved from Guelph, Ontario – just outside of the metropolis of Toronto – in exchange for the smaller, east coast city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, during this period, and got remarried and became a father. Notwithstanding these major life events, relentless touring and being a full-time member of Blackie, who released an excellent duets album called Kings and Queens in 2011, let alone his involvement in the duo Fearing & White with musician Andy White, kept Fearing from the solo album circuit. So Between Hurricanes, the title, offers a glimmer of past and looming turmoil and upheaval, a sort of a quiet in the eye of a storm. And there’s a certain weariness expressed in the lyrics of the album, one that appears to divine inspiration from long hours logged on the open road. Opening song, “As the Crow Flies” offers “Driving through the dead of night / A hundred miles on one headlight / Movin’ on,” while follow-up song “Don’t You Wish Your Bread Was Dough” brings this all to a crashing halt: “As my car flew off the road / Images and memories were running through my head.” And Fearing covers a very early Gordon Lightfoot chestnut from 1964 as a bonus track here, “Early Morning Rain”, which is about waiting to finally get out of Dodge: “Out on runway number nine a big 707’s set to go / But, I’m stuck here in the grass where the cold wind blows.”
However, for all of its themes of travel, Between Hurricanes is inert musically. It’s the kind of Canadian folk music that gives Canadian folk music a bad name: stuff that pre-retiree, bored federal government employees who eat granola and whose idea of a dream summer vacation is a week spent in a tent deep in the Canadian wilderness with nothing else but a paddle and a canoe will best enjoy. To non-Canadians (or even those who live outside of Canada’s capital of Ottawa) who may be clueless to the existence of this type of individual, let me put it another way: Between Hurricanes is so soft-shoe that it could easily be passed off as being a Roger Whittaker sound-a-like. When it isn’t busy conjuring up bad puns in its song titles (“Don’t You Wish Your Bread Was Dough”), it’s effortlessly coughing up one cliché after another: “As the Crow Flies”, “Wheel of Love”, “Just in Time to Say Goodbye”, yadda, yadda, yadda.
What’s more, this album boasts what is quickly becoming a tired standard in Canadian folk circles: the Maritime or water-related disaster ballad. (Please see Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” or Stan Rogers’ “White Squall”). In this case, Fearing offers up “Cold Dawn”, a song about the 2009 Cougar Helicopter crash off the coast of Newfoundland which claimed the lives of 17 passengers and crew en route to an Atlantic Ocean oil drilling platform. However, where most songs of this ilk are filled with vim and vigor, “Cold Dawn” is so laid-back and pleasant sounding, you could easily enjoy a latte to this in some corner café and not realize it’s about the deaths of more than a dozen people. Hardly the sort of stuff that stands as a memorial to those who perished.
Where the album does pick up is when the songs become more, dare I say?, rock based. “These Golden Days” basically takes the chord progressions to Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages” (arguably popularized by the Byrds) and re-imagines it as a folk ballad to middling effect. “Wheel of Love” is a passable stab at Richard Thompson-style folk-rock, and “Keep Your Mouth Shut” is an effective barnburner, and also, alas, the shortest thing to be found on the record at less than three minutes long. Unfortunately, such moments of fire are too few and too far between. Much of Between Hurricanes is a sludge of snooze-inducing ballads that are so bland and inoffensive, the end effect is hardly passable. Even Fearing’s cover of “Early Morning Rain” is so nice that it just doesn’t hit the mark, or make you forget the fact that Lightfoot was an aspiring folk musician who could hold his own in the ‘60s before popularizing his muse to be more pop-oriented in the ‘70s.
If Between Hurricanes is meant to be in any way representative of the Canadian folk music genre, it just goes to prove that Canadian folk music may now be a stylistic dead end. In all, Between Hurricanes will bore most listeners to tears, unless you’re, say, more than 50 years old and happen to like your music to be devoid of any sort of spark and vitality, perhaps just like your settled down, mortgage paid off, kids almost grown life. This is just simply the soundtrack to profound boredom, and it’s shocking that Fearing could find so little inspiration from some profound events in his life. While Fearing might be in a super supergroup, and has stuff in his back-catalogue worthy of exploration, Between Hurricanes is the product of a man who simply has little gas left in the tank. It is, in a word or two, utterly disposable and inconsequential – odd given the gifted nature of the hands and voice that honed it. Still, it is a sorry and sad statement, indeed, and you’d be forgiven for giving this a pass.