Missing was put together in pieces over several years, but it doesn’t show. There is a coherence to the musical vision that is partly due to production skill of Greg McGrath, who did the final mix, but also to the incredibly focused, syncretic, and unified musical vision of Richie Stearns.
“Oh My Little Darlin’,” a traditional to which Stearns has added lyrics, is a brooding opening track haunted by minimalist banjo and droning violin. “Train on the Island” picks up the pace but retains the somber mood. Stearns is in touch with the surrealist tendencies of old-time lyrics; a train driving around a circular track surrounded by water somehow manages to be an old-fashioned image of a very modern (perhaps timeless) human predicament.
“Fire Burning” is a beautiful downer and features a version of Stearns’s live band, the Evil City Trio. Kim Sherwood-Caso (of Johnny Dowd’s band) contributes otherworldly backing vocals. This is a break-up song that is so still and airless that you might hold your breath while listening to it. It is immediately balanced by a version of Peter Tosh’s “Downpressor Man” that in the tradition of the best reggae manages to be buoyant, pissed off, and tinged with pain all at once.
And so it goes throughout this pristinely recorded, wonderfully played, and brilliantly paced collection. The overall tone is downbeat, but not relentlessly so. The gloom is lifted by the Tosh tune, a great version of “Baghdad Children,” a song Stearns wrote to protest the start of the Iraq war, and even the mordant humor of his version of of Jim Reeves’s “He’ll Have to Go,” in which a spurned lover stubbornly insists that the new boyfriend take a hike.
Stearns covers Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” the way Johnny Cash covered it, as a straight-ahead dirge stripped of the electronic barrage that envelopes the pain of the original leaving the narrator hurt bare and exposed.
But there is a brand of gallows humor at work amid all the suffering. Even funnier than “He’ll Have to Go” is the version of Jimmie Davis’s “You Are My Sunshine.” The “please don’t take my sunshine away” part of the lyric is front and center here, with Stearns delivering the lines in a croak somewhere between Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. Sherwood-Caso’s voice floats above the gutter like an angel over a drunk.
Carrie Rodriquez makes several appearances, but her duet with Stearns on “More Than the Wind” is perhaps the most affective. Their voices blend on some notes to become a single double-timbered tone. The arrangement produces the effect of two lovers simultaneously asking each other if they can love each other enough and in the right way. It is series of questions with no answer.
The album closes with a sonic experiment, which those who venture out to see Stearns with Evil City will get a lot more of. This master of old-time banjo has been experimenting with feeding back his axe into the amp. He and Judy Hyman do it to stunning effect during Horse Flies’ performances as well. Whereas the on-stage exercises are Hendrix-worthy squall-fests, “Missing” is an atmospheric piece that would fit in on a Fripp and Eno album from the 1970s. More, please.
—Bill Chaisson (Trumansburg, NY)