Sarah Harmer

Oh Little Fire

(Universal/Cold Snap; 2010)

By Scott Reid | 6 August 2010

Whatever the modest expectations laid upon Sarah Harmer in the 2000s—for our non-Canadian readers, I hear your “wait, who?” and offer these two clips as an introduction—they were borne entirely from her tremendous solo debut, You Were Here (2000). Harmer was hardly a stranger to the Canadian music scene by that point, having spent the better part of the ’90s in Weeping Tile with Luther Wright, but I stress her solo debut as the solidifying point of the Kingston, Ontario native’s career because it so confidently and with such ease destroys everything by her former band. Not that they—folky alt-rockers who barely scraped the Can-rock consciousness with 1996’s “Cold Snap”—were shit, but, especially listening back now, they were only truly exciting when Harmer took the reigns. Barren three-chorders like “In the Road” were far-too-rare triumphs that, not long after her band’s silent dissolve, took off in poppier, even folkier strides, reflected in single “Basement Apt.” A radio-friendly reworking of an old Weeping Tile track with the corniest of canned beats tacked on, the new “Basement Apt.” nevertheless highlighted just how far she had come in the five years since the original, its melody no longer rickety and tentatively delivered, her voice gently soaring where it once felt forced.

It’s where this growth would lead elsewhere on You Were Here—especially on the towering centerpiece “Lodestar”—that set fans like myself up for a decade’s worth of expecting more on that level, if not also wondering (as if it were inevitable) “when will she top this?“...which, I’m sorta crushed to come to terms with all these years later, may never be answered. Unless, I suppose, your immediate response to You Were Here‘s accomplishment in the face of its damning coffee-shop aesthetic was “more of that, but less inspired; also: Starbucks-ier.” In which case, Harmer’s newest Oh Little Fire is your confounding dream come true. Um, congrats?

For the rest of us, hearing great promise in the gorgeous slow pull of “Coffee Stain” and “Uniform Grey,” the news isn’t quite as good: Oh Little Fire, Harmer’s third release since You Were Here, is the latest in a drawn-out series of diminished returns. Her last, the heavily bluegrass- and country-influenced I’m a Mountain (2005), rehashed the clichés of her chosen genres (tellingly, the covers stand out the most, like Dolly Parton’s “Will He Be Waiting For Me?”); the record felt somewhat slight, especially in the latter half, but still marked a return to the warm, affable feel of her debut, thankfully shunning the chilly home-studio production of 2004’s All of Our Names. Those still holding out hope for a full-on return to form a long five years since I’m a Mountain seemingly set it in motion, no such luck: in repeating many of the same pros and cons of her last two albums, Oh Little Fire is another pleasant collection of very okay folk, country, and radio rock. It’s actually pretty good for an album that appears to aim for nothing more and nothing less, but…well, that I can’t think of a better compliment pretty much sums it up.

Late-album duet with Neko Case, “Silverado,” is one of few major exceptions to Oh Little Fire‘s MOR rule. Written by Music Mahl’s Trevor Henderson, the track indulges Harmer’s love of trad country, her and Case trading turns with a lilting melody that strongly recalls the standards she’d so sublimely covered on Songs For Clem (1999). Though apparently not co-written by Case, the surprisingly dour instrumental bridge certainly sounds like it could have been lifted whole from one of her albums, with brooding horns and pedal steel washing under some very Sadies-ish lead guitar. “Silverado”‘s predecessor, “The City,” is another standout, by far the strongest Harmer-penned song here. A compact and insidiously catchy folk-rocker featuring harmony vocals from Metric’s Jimmy Shaw, it, on the heels of the similarly spry “Late Bloomer,” breathes life into a record sorely in need of just that.

Whatever it lacks in consistency, Oh Little Fire is at least Harmer’s best-sounding record since her debut, avoiding her sophomore effort’s stilted production even when it returns to the sort of pop-rock tangents I’m a Mountain had avoided altogether. “The Thief” and first single “Captive” lead the album off with two such tangents, frontloading some of its strongest hooks— the latter especially catchy with its sing-along refrain, as eerily familiar as it may be. But it’s a short-lived momentum, the lead-in to a prolonged lull that eats up the rest of Fire‘s first side. Things start to get back on track with “Washington,” which, sequenced dead center, doesn’t quite fully deliver on what the record needs at that point: something to forcefully grab us, to shake us awake the way “Weakened State” and “Dandelions in Bullet Holes” had. Instead, “Washington,” at nearly four minutes an epic by Fire‘s standards, leisurely strums around a borrowed classic rock progression—and I mean literally borrowed, it being shamelessly copped from the ahh-ahhh-ahhhhhh! chorus of “Fly At Night.” Yup: Chilliwack, of all fucking bands. Hope you’re feeling nostalgic, and ridiculously Canadian.

The two ballads that follow “Silverado” take All of Our Names‘ unfortunate lead in saving some of the most nondescript material for the very end: “The Marble in Your Eye” and “It Will Sail” run together as an extended yawning coda to a record that, far from awful, is simply too littered with tepid retreads (“Careless”) and well-arranged bores (“New Loneliness”) to hold together for more than a handful of tracks at a time. That may sound harsh; Oh Little Fire isn’t quite the sound of a formerly great artist comfortably resigning herself to clearing a decidedly lower bar, or, to follow this record’s theme, coming to terms with a quelled fire. Harmer’s fundamental appeal is still very much in tact—her voice, it should be said, is as strong as ever, which goes a long way—and there are quite a few gems here for the patient, but this is nevertheless hit-and-miss stuff, yet another woeful reminder of what Harmer is capable of instead of the long-awaited realization of that promise.