Bernard Fanning: Tea & Sympathy

[31 October 2006]

By Dan Raper

Originally released in 2005 in Australia, Bernard Fanning’s solo debut, Tea & Sympathy, doesn’t take long to get your head around. A straightforward set of folky, country-ish acoustic rock with Fanning’s signature melodies, the disc baffles if only because you can’t work out how it got lodged so firmly in your head.

Fanning and his band Powderfinger have been trying to break into the U.S. market for a long time. In this respect, their enormous popularity back in Australia has almost worked against them: the continual draw of ex-pats to ‘Finger shows in the U.S. may have prevented some Americans from seeing the band live. But sold-out shows never really hurt anyone, and the band may have more to blame on their AC/DC-inspired anthemic rock sound—a sound that reviewers (especially indie-oriented Internet reviewers) find easy to ridicule because it’s so easy to trace precedents. But the thing is that for Australians, both in the U.S. and back home, the continued, complete immersion in this band’s sound has transformed it from a popular music act to a true cultural phenomenon.

What I mean is, Fanning’s melodies have come to be a recognizably Australian art form. Twisting standard pop-rock tunes with a trill at phrase’s end, falling back into key with an easy modulation—tropes repeated again and again in Bernard Fanning’s songs. Especially on Internationalist and Oddysey Number Five, Powderfinger’s easy brand of pop rock favours fragments of melody strung together over moments of silence. A paired series of songs over those albums, “Capoicity” and “Thrilloilogy”, incorporate codas with organic melodies that explode out of the fabric of the song: the refrain “The fragile bond is shaken loose / This secret love a shrinking noose” still one of the most memorable moments in radio rock.

This is the era that Fanning turns to on Tea & Sympathy. With a different instrumentation, just about any of the songs here could have found a place on one of the two Powderfinger albums mentioned above. But, of course, instrumentation does make a difference, and here the accoutrements of Fanning’s familiar tunes are new—a background of strummed acoustic guitars, violins, and harmonica provides a country tinge and a strong “solo album” vibe. Luckily, for the most part, the songs are the kind of singer-songwriter effort that ultimately rewards, rather than ultimately bores.

Actually, in all honesty, my first reaction on hearing the album last year was disappointment. I dismissed it as a collection of Powderfinger b-sides that didn’t have the power of Fanning’s main band’s guitars. But more recently I’ve found myself lining up a number of tracks again and again. The music is simple and radio-friendly, and not challenging—but it sticks around in your head more than you would predict based on its individual components. It’s a hard thing to explain, but take, for example, “Hope & Validation”. On first listen it’s a pretty, standard ballad (acoustic guitars, repetitive verse-verse-verse structure), but third or fourth time through, the gently falling melody line haunts: “Plans and preparations are decided in vain / Hope and validation are united again”.

There are two kinds of song on the album: quiet, confessional ballads and upbeat numbers that often interrupt a verse with a stabbing wall of hard-strummed guitars. This halting structure is mostly an agent for compelling listening; only “Wish You Well”, the first single, really chugs all the way through. But Fanning’s voice provides the glue—it’s reedy in a conventional rock way, but it has a rich vein of feeling, and inhabits its tenor range with the ease of over ten years in the business. Fanning mines Neil Young on the easy, lilting “Songbird”, but he’s most hushed on two ballads that have religious overtones (“Wash Me Clean” and “Watch Over Me”), which recall the hushed feeling of Ben Harper’s cover of “I Shall Not Walk Alone”.

To the extent that Tea & Sympathy is picked up by U.S. listeners, I would not expect an initially favorable review. Perhaps it’s that Bernard Fanning’s melodies have been beaten into me, but it still seems remarkable that each one of these fourteen songs holds a pearl of feeling that lasts and lasts. OK, maybe rather than a pearl, a more appropriate metaphor would be a gobstopper. These songs are everlasting gobstoppers, nothing fancy, but gee they keep giving and giving.

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