Apparently, it’s music review month here at Lost In Transliteration. In that spirit, let’s talk about another album, released this past June, also made by someone named Sarah. Yes,
sportsmusic fans, Sarah Harmer has a new album out!
Let me start by saying that I don’t understand why Sarah Harmer hasn’t taken over the musical world. She’s been around for quite a while; her first solo album was released almost a decade ago (and we’re going to talk about why you don’t own that album later), yet I am forever running into people who have no idea who she is. Even people who should know better don’t. “You Were Here” got monster critical praise, but almost no airplay anywhere — beyond “Basement Apartment” and “Don’t Get Your Back Up” on a few LiteFM stations — which is incredibly unfair because the whole record was so good it should have come free in the mail as a public service. It was eventually certified platinum in Canada, which is a relief, because it proves at least 100,000 people in this country don’t have horrible taste in music. If I had to sum it up to someone who’d never heard it, I’d say that the album is “solid,” in that the lyrics, the music, and the production is professional but not excessive; the writing is thoughtful without being overwrought, and it reflects a maturity we don’t often see in debut albums. (Though in fairness, it wasn’t really a debut album in the true sense of the word — a variety of projects, including Weeping Tile, preceded “You Were Here,” which might be why it’s so polished.) You can’t really characterize it cleanly — some songs (“Basement Apartment”) talk about the numbing banality of mid-adulthood poverty and unfulfilling relationships, while others (“Capsized”) manage to capture melancholy and emotional vulnerability with a clarity that can be downright bracing if you’re not ready for it. (“What’s the sense in being so sensitive?/Can I trade this thin skin for a shell?”) It was astonishingly good. It is astonishingly good.
“All of Our Names” came in 2004 and seemed a lot like the sort of record Joni Mitchell would make if she were making records in 2004 with contemporary sensibilities. And were a lot more talented. (Sorry, kids.) It got moderately more airplay:
“All of Our Names” didn’t really stick with me as well as it should have — or so I keep thinking. Working on this entry, I scrolled back through my library thinking I had to play the album over again so I could at least have something intelligent to say about it. Then it turned out I knew them already and could play them in my head, which probably means that it did stick with me better than I expected. And it also turns out I don’t actually have very much to say about it anyway — at least, not quite at this juncture.
The difficult third album: “I’m A Mountain.” I didn’t like this when I first heard it. “Escarpment Blues,” an unabashedly activist song, had been around for a couple of months before the release of the record, and I knew it was supposed to be on the new album, so I was entirely unprepared for what I got — a bluegrass/country compilation that was ridiculously well put together. You won’t confuse it for something by, say, Alison Krauss — there isn’t enough fiddle on it, for one thing — but that doesn’t matter. It’s a lot of fun to listen to, and it’s evident that Harmer and her collaborators got a lot of enjoyment out of putting it together. “I’m A Mountain” got even less airplay than the previous two, which is really unfortunate. Listen to the whole thing a couple of times through, and you suddenly realize what it is that makes Sarah Harmer’s music so appealing: it’s that voice. It’s not that the music isn’t good, or that the writing isn’t fascinating — it’s that her voice is staggeringly good. “Salamandre,” which is really a kids song (in French, no less), shows this off perfectly. She’s an alto, something we don’t often see in women singers, and she has complete control over it.
(As an aside, check out the total views on the videos linked above. What’s wrong with people?!)
Now comes the fourth act: “Oh Little Fire,” Sarah Harmer’s attempt at a rock album. By her own description, it’s music people can crank while driving down the highway. Much in the same way as her attempt at a bluegrass album worked and showed off something new, “Oh Little Fire” is clearly of Harmer, new and interesting. “Captive” is the first single:
The beat is new for her — it does, in fact, sound good loud (something that wasn’t true about “You Were Here”) — and it’s genuinely catchy. The rest of the album is similar, with the same kind of peculiarly observant songwriting we’ve seen before. But what makes “Oh Little Fire” interesting is what it reveals about Sarah Harmer, the musician: she’s a real musician. I don’t mean this in contrast to the various autotuned nightmares we’re exposed to on a daily basis (though of course that comparison is valid), I mean that this is very clearly someone who is committed to her art and her craft, who isn’t afraid to try new or different things, who has a very clear passion for what (for lack of a better term) might be called “competent music,” and material that continually reveals something new. In stark contrast to what I wrote earlier about “Laws of Illusion,” this very clearly is the work of someone trying to innovate: I hesitate to call it growth for her, but it is a change, and god, is it ever brilliant.
You won’t get shivers from it. You will, however, thoroughly enjoy it.
Note for Victoria residents: Sarah Harmer will be performing on Saturday, 25 September 2010, as part of the Rifflandia music festival at the Alix Goolden Hall. Wristbands for the three-day festival are $65++; other performers include Great Lake Swimmers, You Say Party!, Hot Hot Heat (who suck) and Men Without Hats (who, unaccountably, are not in fact dead). Details here. I won’t be there, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be.