There are two things that make even the mainstream edge of alt-country better: female vocals and being Canadian. When sung by a woman, country doesn’t remind you of Garth Brooks, Brooks & Dunn, or Jeff Foxworthy’s "You might be redneck…" stand-up routine, and isn’t yet another alt-folk dude bearing his soul. There a lot of those dudes up in the Great White North, but like the fuzzy, expansive alt-collective sound, alt-country is a genre Canadians seem to specialize in, like hockey players or cheap prescription medicine. Burlington, Ontario’s Sarah Harmer has both of those things going for her on Oh Little Fire, which might just help her get some more attention stateside.
Harmer has already gotten that attention in her native Canada, breaking through with 2000’s You Were Here, making the top ten with 2004’s All of Our Names, and getting shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize with the following year’s I’m a Mountain. It’s taken Harmer a while to return, but Oh Little Fire has a great balance between sweet & rock that is necessary for this kind of (not-that-)alt-country. The choruses to "Captive" and "Careless" showcase the singer/songwriter at her best in that balancing act, while getting the right relaxed-but-resigned tone to "Washington", and a darker atmosphere to "New Loneliness", evoking eighties singer/songwriter ladies such as Suzanne Vega (QRO photos).
Sarah Harmer doesn’t always hit it right. "One Match" is too cute, "The Marble In Your Eye" too ‘up with life’, and the combination of ultra-twang & high female vox to the preceding "Silverado" doesn’t come together. And mainstream-ish alt-country is a well-stocked genre, leaving pieces like opener "The Thief" struggling to stand out. More ladies have been staking their claim in the field, from Tift Merritt (QRO album review) to Lissie (QRO album review), and they don’t have to look like Jewel to do it (actually, not being über-eye candy probably helps – though still have some alt-beauty probably helps, too…). So here’s to the ladies, you hoser!
MP3 Stream: "Careless"