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CD Review: I Am A Mountain - Sarah Harmer

The problem with expectations is that they inevitably lead to disappointment. While that's probably true with most of life, I find it especially true when dealing with either a book by a favoured author or a new CD by a familiar performer.

Over the years, you have set the bar, fairly or unfairly, higher and higher for that artist. Expecting them to always surpass their previous efforts to entertain and enthral you. When they produce a novel or CD that is, in your estimation, something that anybody could have done, you are disappointed.

It might be a perfectly good work, but because you expect more from them than you would from just any old artist, you are disappointed. If that doesn't sound like a particularly objective way of reviewing or critiquing a work, it's the truth of the matter. No matter how much anyone might pretend to be objective as a critic, it's impossible not to have expectations about work.

What else are we to compare an artist's output to if not their previous efforts? How else would you be able to tell if they've made progress, changed their style, or attempted some radical shift? True, you can always compare them to others in their field who are working in a similar style, but that becomes more of a case of competitive comparison than actual critiquing. Saying someone is better than someone else doesn't give much indication of whether an individual is utilizing their talents to the fullest.

That has got to be the longest introduction to a review I've ever written but in the case of the latest CD from Sarah Harmer, I'm A Mountain, I thought some explanation was required. I've been in the fortunate position of living in Kingston Ontario almost since Sarah first started performing in local bars. Any of the times that I have seen her play she has blown me away. (The version of John Lennon's "Working Class Hero" she did with an early incarnation of Weeping Tile is still the best I've ever heard or seen)

Some years back she put out an album called For Clem. It was a collection of older standards and traditional country tunes she and a couple of friends recorded on the back porch of her house. If you listen carefully, on some tracks you can here crickets singing along with them.

Perhaps because she recorded these songs as a heartfelt message of thanks to her father, or maybe it was just a matter of catching lighting in a bottle, but there was something about that album that allowed it to break down the normal barrier that's between performer and audience.

You could picture yourself pulling up a chair on that porch and being welcome to sit and tap your foot along to the music. They had woven a spell of intimacy that was as wonderful as it is rare to find in today's popular music.

Her albums have always had a level of intimacy that I have found lacking with other performers. There is always the feeling that she is singing specifically for you. Perhaps it's the simplicity of production or the honesty of her lyrics that creates that feeling, I'm not sure, until now I've never stopped to analyse it carefully.

The problem I have with I'm A Mountain is that it sounds like any one of the oh so serious, woman singer songwriters out there now could have written it: Sarah, Jewel, Tori, and whoever. They come from a long tradition of soulless, sentimental pabulum producers like Janis Ian, Pheobe Snow, and Carly Simon.

There's always been a fine line in acoustic, singer songwriter style music, separating genuine emotion and self-indulgent naval gazing. In the past few years, a new breed of woman songwriter has appeared who talks about serious issues. Perhaps because I'm not a twenty-year-old middle class white woman the songs have no meaning to me, but all their music sounds alike musically and intellectually.

Sarah Harmer's music has never fallen into that category by any stretch of the imagination. It's too real and too diverse in its take on life. Even her weakest efforts to date have shown far too much willingness to experiment with style and form for her to be classed in that category.

The problem for me with I'm A Mountain is that it skirts around the edges of that territory. While songs like "Luther's Got The Blues" and "I Am Aglow" have a freshness to them both musically and lyrically that held my attention, none of the other songs were really that captivating.

Technically her voice is as wonderful as ever and the songs are all well crafted, but they are lacking something in the heart-felt category that bridges the gap between performer and listener. I felt no reason to be interested in what she was singing about.

Sarah Harmer is still one of my favourite singer ? songwriters out there, and I will continue to look forward to her new albums. Hopefully I 'm A Mountain will just be an aberration in the otherwise wonderful catalogue of music she has produced. From another performer this might have been an acceptable album, but she is better than this, so I was disappointed.

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