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Indie Grrrls: Sarah Harmer, Oh Little Fire; Clare Burson, Silver and Ash; Joy Ike, Rumors

Today we’ll hear and see a little bit from three great singer songwriters that showcase the wide variety of indie.

Joy Ike has a secret she'll let you in on. But you'll want to tell everyone! (Click to visit the artist's website.)

Joy Ike
[Self-released (2010)]

It took two years of writing, recording, and self-exploration for Joy Ike, Pittsburgh’s reigning Best Solo Artist and the Local Lilith contest winner for Lilith Fair’s Philadelphia stop, to release Rumors. Depending on who’s writing about her, Joy might be folk, neo-soul, piano pop, or even just “indie,” that nebulous little genre-hopping adventure my generation is on. Joy is a savvy self-marketer, a respected name in what might be called a regional “coffeehouse scene” (check out her DIY musicians blog, Grassrootsy), and above it all an utterly mesmerizing singer.

For the most part, the disc is front-loaded with material the would not sound out of place on any self-respecting college radio station. “Like A Picture,” the third track on the album, is a great example of Joy’s ability to pull off hand-clapping pop without burying her singer-songwriterness, and the lead-off song, “Sweeter” (which you can download from her BandCamp site for free) is a great example of her neo-soul prowess. And those comparisons to Regina Spektor and Fiona Apple are sure to pop up again once “How She Floats” comes around.

But the disc really shines on the last two songs. The title track is softer than most of the other material; there’s no belting here, just Joy’s piano, a subdued string quartet, and whispy vocals; it merges seemlessly, suite-style, with “Power,” the ballad that closes the album. The arrangement is a perfectly layered build: just a bass-end piano vamp in the first verse, drums and pulsing cello coming in on the second, then the full string quartet, then finally a choir that includes Joy’s sibling, Peace Ike. Then the faucet shuts off again at the very end, and you’re left with just Joy and her piano . . .

The way you’re likely to hear her at many of her shows.

Since I can’t resist writing this review without at least one pun: Spread this one around. [www.joyike.com]

—Jon Patton (Baltimore, MD)

Sarah Harmer (photo by Anita Doron). (Click to visit the artist's website.)

Sarah Harmer
Oh Little Fire
[Zoë 01143-1127 (2010)]

Sarah Harmer is poised to make the big-time. Her fifth release, Oh Little Fire, which follows up her Polaris-nominated turn in ’05, offers up gentle tunes that are sure to make new fans of the merely-curious and turn current fans rabid. Harmer’s sweet, pleasant voice alternates between playful (“Late Bloomer”) and mournful folk tunes (“Careless”) with refreshing ease while keeping up with tunes that wouldn’t sound out of place on an album by indie darlings The Shins. Brushing aside the misfire of country track “Silverado,” this is a strong indie-pop album that effortlessly fuses multiple genres.

Clocking in at just over 34 minutes, Oh Little Fire is one of those albums that, when it ends, you immediately hit “play” again . . . and again . . . and likely a third and fourth time after that. And when you are finished, you probably don’t place the CD too far from reach.

From the beginning, “Fire” grabs the listener’s attention with delicate and surprisingly vibrant fingers and doesn’t let go. Most of the songs are resplendently catchy little tunes, and even when Ms. Harmer is singing plaintively about love lost and bruised hearts (a la “The Thief”), the tracks themselves have such tight melodies and infectious refrains that it’s easy to forget that smiling and finger-snapping is almost inappropriate. Make sure to pay special notice to the fabulous five song stretch in the middle of the album that starts with the whimsical “One Match” and ends with the melancholy “The City”; the price of admission is made up right there. Everything else is just a happy bonus. [www.sarahharmer.com]

—Mike Tager (Baltimore, MD)

Cheer up! (Photo by Ted Barron.) (Click to visit the artist's website.)

Clare Burson
Silver and Ash
[Rounder (release date 9/14/2010)]

For Silver and Ash, Clare Burson made a pilgrimage to her grandmothers’ homes in Tennessee, interviewed them about the old world, saw some hundred-year-old cheese, and came back with a thematically watertight album of soft Indie folk/pop, filled with excellent lyrics and lush atmospheric arrangements replete with loping fingerpicking, alternately shimmering and ambient guitars, and a rhythm section as comforting as your grandma’s stew.

Burson’s voice and music are a softer version of Lucinda Williams, with a touch of the “western gothic” of Neko Case and, on this record at least, a dash of Eastern Europe. “Baby Boy,” “The World Turns on a Dime” (the track with the most clear eastern European influence), and “Everything’s Gone” are the standout tacks and perfectly showcase Burson’s deft, natural lyrics:

the morning still comes
and my days are full of cleanin’
and the candles still burn as the sun goes down
as the sun goes down
but there’s a hole in the house where my baby boy lay

But the album’s greatest strength is also its major weakness. Because the album is so artistically tight, there aren’t too many musical surprises; it’s simply not varied enough for a disc that only covers 30 minutes. Baring the aforementioned “Baby Boy” and “I Will/With You,” which falls in the middle of the album and is actually one of the weaker tracks, very little here pulls the album out of the subdued groove it finds in the first few tracks. With one or two tracks that loosened up on the reverb-laden atmospherics, this could have been a great album. Instead, it’s simply an excellent one with a very interesting back story.[www.myspace.com/clareburson]

—Jon Patton (Baltimore, MD)

© 2010 DriftwoodMagazine.com, All rights reserved.

[Edit: Replaced the Joy Ike video per artist’s request.]

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