Bernard Fanning

Tea & Sympathy

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Bernard Fanning is best known as the lead singer/songwriter of Australia's Powderfinger, but on his first solo album he's jettisoned his band's radio-friendly power pop for vintage country-folk, circa 1971. And "country-folk" really is the operative term here, not alt-country, Americana, or any other hip label that may have originated in the past 20 years, because Bernard Fanning's influences are strictly old school. Like a reprise of Stephen Stills' Manassas or Elton John's Tumbleweed Connection, Fanning's solo debut is awash in well-constructed pop songs that are dressed up with mandolins, Dobros, and fiddles. There's a country veneer, but scratch beneath the surface and you'll find some sturdy pop hooks and the kind of laid-back hippie sentiments that wouldn't sound out of place on early-'70s FM radio. Co-produced by Fanning and Tchad Blake (Tom Waits, Crowded House, Peter Gabriel), Tea & Sympathy's 14 songs span the classic country-folk spectrum. The opening "Thrill Is Gone" and later "Hope & Validation" both feature the kind of yearning, soaring vocals and infectious melodies that John tossed off regularly early in his career, while lead single "Wish You Well" and "Sleeping Rough" strongly recall Stills' work, both solo and with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. "Wash Me Clean" and closing track "Watch Over Me" show off Fanning's sensitive folkie side, all Jackson Browne earnestness and regret. Fanning is a fine, soulful singer, sounding at times remarkably like an Australian Stephen Stills, and his vocal presence alone merits attention. He also has an easy way with pop hooks. His songwriting is a little too nondescript to register deeply, though. "Thrill Is Gone," "Songbird," "Further Down the Road," and "Yesterday's Gone" all have to be in the running for Most Generic Song Title of All Time, and the sad-sack sentiments of most of these songs of loss and regret don't really improve the recognition factor. It all adds up to a pleasant, well-crafted, and somewhat slight effort.

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