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CD Review: Sarah Harmer - "You Were Here" (2000)
Okay, another artist that no-one's ever heard of! Don't tell me, she's Canadian?
My cousin who lives in Winnipeg would be proud of me, promoting singer-songwriters who come from his adopted country. Yes, Sarah Harmer is indeed of the Canuckistan persuasion. Now that doesn't mean I'm instantly going to like what she sings, nor am I likely to sing her praises from the rooftops - but even after the first listen to her 2000 album "You Were Here", I discovered I'd a smile on my face, put there by some low-key but really enjoyable tracks that seem to have been forgotten by the music-loving public. I do tend to search out artists that don't garner huge amounts of publicity and I've little love for those that are manufactured by record companies and TV talent shows - so you could call me something of a musical snob. I don't really care what people think, especially when it means I can listen to the likes of Sarah Harmer instead of the latest reject from X-Factor.
I've known about Sarah Harmer for a few years now, but hadn't got around to buying one of her CDs until last month (so many artists to listen to, not enough hours in the day!). I was planning to buy her 2005 album "I'm A Mountain" instead, but the lure of picking "You Were Here" up for around £3.50 via Amazon's US site (I wasn't bothered about the ten-day wait for delivery) swung me towards the latter. "You Were Here" was actually Harmer's mainstream debut and only her second solo album. Hailing from Ontario, her older sister took her to concerts when she was still a teen, and by the age of 17 Sarah Harmer had been invited to join the Toronto band Saddletramps. Mixing music with studies at university, she formed her own band, Weeping Tile, in 1993. Three albums followed before they broke up in 1998, Harmer going on to create a solo career. That same year, she home-recorded a set of American standards (i.e. songs pre-dating rock 'n' roll) as a Christmas present for her father, who encouraged her to release it properly. This became the foundation for "Songs For Clem", which came out in 1999. With the advent and success of "You Were Here" the following year, Harmer was able to re-release "Songs For Clem" under her new deal with Universal Music Canada. 2004 saw "All Of Our Names" hit the shelves, whilst a year later "I'm A Mountain" came out. A fifth solo album is presently being recorded.
"You Were Here" gave Sarah Harmer her commercial breakthrough in her native Canada and is still widely considered there as being one of the best albums created by the country's musicians. I wouldn't necessarily disagree with that assessment even though she did go onto receive two Juno Award nominations for subsequent works. Ironically, five of the songs (including the two that went onto be hit singles) on "You Were Here" had at one time featured on either Saddletramps or Weeping Tile albums, both bands failing to break into the public's awareness.
How do I describe the tracks on this CD? In comparison with her fellow countrywomen, she's nowhere near a melodramatic diva like Sarah McLachlan, more of a playful Martina Sorbara in her pre-Dragonettes days, but without the sleaze. The songs on this album have the aura of being homespun, roots, pop and folk all being combined to create well-mannered yet bouncy little tunes - all wrapped up in some deliciously elegant arrangements and topped off by Harmer's own wistful soprano - a voice that I'd happily hear simply singing the phone book. Included among the first six tracks are some of the best songs that I've noted on a Canadian album since I heard Melanie Doane's "Adams Rib" - I just know I'm never going to get tired of hearing them. By the time I got to "Weakened State", I knew I was listening to a winner.
So how do I sum up Sarah Harmer? In the end, maybe it's easier just echo "Rolling Stone" magazine's assessment of her - "a slightly less p*ssed off, psychic cousin of Liz Phair" (I really should get around to reviewing one of the latter's albums, that'll test the word filter on Dooyoo!).
There are twelve tracks on the album, listed as follows:
01. Around This Corner
02. Basement Apt.
03. The Hideout
06. Weakened State
07. Don't Get Your Back Up
08. Open Window (The Wedding Song)
09. Uniform Grey
10. Coffee Stain
11. You Were Here
Around This Corner
"I'll be coming round this corner
One day real slow
And I'll see myself reflected
In someone I used to know"
If you'd heard "Songs For Clem" and were expecting a quiet little mouse singing some lilting melodies from the 1930s, chances are you'd be totally blown away by "Around This Corner". This song literally skips off the blocks from the get-go, the crunchy arrangement benefitting immensely from Harmer's top-drawer soprano. You're immediately torn between what's on offer, though - do you concentrate on her voice or lose yourself in the exquisite but quirky clarinet courtesy of Spencer Davis that underpins the whole track, the latter being given a mid-section solo where he totally shines. A brave decision to include a clarinet in a pop song - but it works wonderfully here. Whilst the lyrics don't stray too far from simply being classed as acceptable, Harmer's eager delivery makes up for any inadequacies, the latter being a refreshing joy to listen to. Her soprano mocks, soothes and even yelps but never seems out of place, even when it descends into wordless accompaniment. There's a timeless quality about this song - it could hail from the 20s, 40s or even the 80s - but whichever era it's from, it's carefree and playful, prancing and dancing around your head until you're singing along with the chorus after maybe only a couple of exposures. It pretty much sums up why I choose to listen to contemporary but unknown female singer-songwriters above all other genres. This could be anyone's favourite track from the album, but hold onto that thought - this is only track one!
"I can smell the bleach
That they use in the hall
But it can't clean the dirt off of me
It's seeping under the door
In across the floor"
This song was the first hit single from the album, having already been included on Weeping Tiles' 1995 seven-track compilation cassette "eepee" (intentional small case). It's a wonder how it wasn't a hit the first time around, though. The contented drum loop and acoustic guitar intro fits in completely with the melody despite being nothing really new, whilst the playful little laugh cut in before the first verse merely adds another layer to this upbeat arrangement. It's all grist for the mill of Harmer's voice, though - I'm not sure whether you can ever can a soprano mellow but it is here, a comforting, reassuring yet expressive tone that in someone else's possession would simply not sit well with such a catchy tune. Towards the end, it almost sounds sad and bouncy at the same time - a complete contradiction, I know. The lyrics are much better here, dealing with specific imagery - dripping taps inspiring thoughts of water torture, for instance - but her vocals are so engaging that you'd be forgiven for not noticing. You even forget that it's a song about a break-up - another case of depressing subjects being dressed up in toe-tapping melodies.
"Look at that green out through the screen
After a quick rain came
So fast that there wasn't time to roll up the windows
And pull the clothes down off the line"
This song was originally included on a Starbucks compilation CD and became a single in its own right. Regardless of how mundane and domestic-sounding the lyrics appear on "The Hideout" at times, the charm here is obvious - the heavy drum line sits well amidst a series of bold chords, whilst Harmer's strongly-emphasised chorus comes complete with a memorable, soaring hook. Said hook has managed to bury itself deep into my subconscious - I found myself humming it on the way to work this morning! Whilst the choruses are structured, the verses appear delightfully ad-libbed throughout, sprinkled with little pauses and twists of tone and pitch, so much so that you're not entirely sure which way the song will turn next. One thing is for certain though, here is an artist that's completely comfortable and totally at ease with her performances - there's no pretence, no falsehoods to trick the listener, simply an honesty that's only possible outside the mainstream.
"When I heard about the coming day
Wish I could wake up from the dream
In it I see a family photograph
And there you are tucked inside the scene"
In an album thankfully bereft of much in the way of production, "Capsized" takes the art right down to the basics - here we just have Sarah Harmer's expressive vocals, a gentle acoustic guitar and a quietly spoken organ, both played by the artist herself. Nothing else is needed on this stand-out song, which simply relies upon her delivery and the dark psychology summoned up by the lyrics, all part of the ebb and flow track listing on "You Were Here". Whilst haunting in places, there's a comforting tone too, each complementing the other, whilst the organ gives just the right amount of depth beyond Harmer's guitar, which at times seems to fall away completely. If proof of how good her voice really is should be required, then "Capsized" delivers this in spades - her songs don't need to be catchy to impress.
"Your hand won't write, not tonight
But your mind may wander
Into those deep lagoons that you know
And your boat will go by starlight alone"
After only a couple of listens through the album, "Lodestar" had already become one of my favourite tracks on this album. It starts off as a meandering wander down some sleepy stream, helped in this audible imagery by Luther Wright's stand-out "dreamy guitar" performance - said description actually being in the inlay notes! The melody is lilting, gentle and rolls off Harmer's own acoustic guitar, Wright's electrics spinning away their own little languid notes, gently underpinning it whilst the artist sings with an intimacy that's absolutely enchanting. Along the way, the song picks up a cello for the second verse and the briefest of trumpet echoes appear. You'd expect the rest of the track to follow in a similar vein as it slips and slides in this melancholy fashion - not so. The drums suddenly come in with a steady if restrained beat, whilst Benjamin Perosin's trumpet picks up slightly before a gentle fade-out occurs. What puts this song head and shoulders above the rest - and the competition - is that she takes this lilting lullaby and injects a completely different tone and feel for the final minute. Many artists would have been content with what they'd already achieved but Sarah Harmer has managed to squeeze two songs into one, the join sounding almost seamless. This final section is jaunty, complete with outstanding cello, trumpet and upright bass, but the award for the best transformation goes to Harmer herself - the lullaby is discarded in favour of a truly uplifting delivery.
"I asked for the truth every time
And now the ugly details
Are stuck in my mind"
The ebb and flow of "You Were Here" continues with the truly catchy "Weakened State" - a frantic sub-three minutes that retains the urgency of the opening track and marries this with the spontaneity of "The Hideout". There's a much heavier edge on display here, probably the most produced track on the album with a fired-up keyboard intro and then no less than three electric guitars going at the same time during the remainder of the song, the third being a "wah" that brings its own quirky little solo to the break. Tough-sounding the track might be, but there's plenty of evidence that it would easily work as an acoustic number too - but in its present setting it sounds very energetic, totally "right" with all its guns blazing. You'd think Harmer might find it a bit of a stretch to be outside her comfort zone but she deals with this rockier number easily - another reason why it's difficult to pin her down to one particular genre or another. It won't come as much of a surprise to learn that this became another hit single from the album in her home country. This is currently my favourite track on "Wish You Were Here".
Don't Get Your Back Up
"You, you're dragging this misery on
Let's leave this thing for awhile
It's too far gone
Too far gone"
It's easy to dismiss "You Were Here" as being some moribund collection of songs, cataloging the fallout from a series of break-ups. "Don't Get Your Back Up" doesn't break this immediate mould unless you let it. When you do, you'll appreciate just how uncluttered this song is, concentrating instead on her wonderfully powerful voice, a fine example of just how good an alt-country/pop song can be. There's no intro - you're pitched headlong into her slightly harder-edged soprano, the guitars following the lolloping drum loops in the background. However, the true hook on this track is Harmer's slightly more world-weary, laid-back delivery, especially when she emphasises the first word of the title, a true test of her talent. Whilst it doesn't have the frantic energy of the previous song, "Don't Get Your Back Up" has plenty of heart and soul instead - just revel in that sound.
CD Inlay and Artwork
Full lyrics are included for each song but they're laid out in a mock-handwritten style which often makes them a little difficult to read properly. There are a few photographs but the sparseness of the layout echoes the production values on the CD itself.
Go out and buy this now. That's all I really should say, but I suppose I should elaborate a little. Sarah Harmer's strength is that she's chosen a selection of songs that seem to draw from a wide variety of styles, yet still work in harmony with each other. Each one appears unfettered with much in the way of modern trappings but still sounds completely contemporary - and more than one track manages to fool the listener into a false sense of security before totally changing the goalposts.
The fact that Harmer is Canadian and that she's plonked into the folk and Americana genres by the press will no doubt limit the amount of exposure she receives. That's a shame, because she transcends several labels with the songs on "You Were Here", yet manages to take what's best from each one and put it all together with a flair that other, more well-known artists would practically kill to achieve.
Despite knowing about her music for a few years before getting this album, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect - I know I didn't bank on the enthusiastic reaction I gave to the first six songs, whilst the remainder of the CD doesn't disappoint either. I've mentally added this album to the ranks of the other Canadian artists I've enthused about these last couple of years - you'd do well to search Sarah Harmer out for yourself. There's bound to be something for virtually everyone on "You Were Here".
(This review appears in modified format elsewhere.)
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Around This Corner
2 Basement Apt
6 Weakened State
7 Don't Get Your Back Up
8 Open Windows
9 Uniform Grey
10 Coffee Stain
11 You Were Here