A fixture of several underachieving Canadian bands since her late teens, Sarah Harmer rose to prominence in her native country with an album of standards originally recorded as a Christmas present for her father in the late 90s. Since then her solo career has flourished, a Polaris Prize nomination and countless back-up appearances for the likes of Neko Case, Great Lake Swimmers and The Weakerthans under her belt. This didn't stop her taking a few years to set up an organisation aimed at preserving the wilderness, making Oh Little Fire her first full-length in five years.
Certainly, it's a very comfortable record. Rich in supple, golden textures and carried by Harmer's sedative tones, a cursory listen reveals it to be very pleasant, if little else. This is partly because of Harmer's voice: rarely straining and effortlessly pretty, her very presence strips this album of high stakes or heady drama. But that's fine, because Oh Little Fire isn't really about high stakes or heady drama–its strengths lie in the utter breeziness of its melodies, and the telling little details they conceal.
See One Match for ample proof of this, where over a snappy, sunny chord pattern she offers lyrics like "If we only spoke with our minds / I would never look you in the eye" in a bittersweet tale of love, thwarted by her prospective partner's reluctance to let himself go. Her parting shot is "If I only had one match left / I would try to light the fire between us," and it's delivered with such sweet resignation that you could happily sing along to every word without realising that it is Actually Quite A Sad Song.
Elsewhere the pace rarely shifts from a relaxed shuffle, cobweb-clearing opener The Thief aside. But therein lies the appeal–penetrate its silky exterior (not a hard task) and you'll be privy to delights such as the slide guitar-tinged Silverado (a duet with Neko Case), the massive romantic streak present in songs like The Marble In Your Eye, and the paean to solitude that is Washington. Quietly, unassumingly lovely.
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This eleven track collection of originals is Harmer's first since 2006's lauded I'm a Mountain
; she then spent several mostly away from music, advocating for environmental issues.
Harmer sings with a "beautiful, precise voice" (New York Times) on upbeat tracks such as "Captive," but employed a new approach for the album. "I specifically tried to get out of the pastoral, contemplative end of the spectrum and went for a more direct, aggressive style of songwriting," she says. The result is a lyrically forthright and musically immediate album, with vibrant sounds enveloping Harmer's trademark delicate, enthralling vocals.Oh Little Fire
was produced by Harmer and Gavin Brown, her drummer of ten years prior and producer for Metric. Recorded in Brown's studio, built into an old building in the east end of Toronto, Harmer put the album together piece by piece through the heat of summer and the cold of the Canadian winter. Some parts were recorded with visiting friends on Lake Ontario's Wolf Island and Neko Case's vocal contribution for the song "Silverado" was captured in a Rochester, NY hotel room. Metric's Jimmy Shaw provided guitar and vocals on additional songs.