Harrow Fair are Miranda Mulholland, of Great Lake Swimmers, and Andrew Penner, of Sunparlour Players, and Call to Arms is their debut release as a duo – and genuinely a duo, Mulholland sings and adds violin whilst Penner sings and is a veritable Captain Manyhands adding guitar, drums, keyboards, banjo and much more. Call to Arms instantly declares Harrow Fair to be a veritable Canadian powerhouse of hoof-thumping Americana as first track Hangnail hits the floor running and never lets up with a booming kick-drum and an insistent guitar hook. It’s a love song of sorts, although it’s a twisted love “if pleasure is the habit and pain is the comfort then what are you ?”. And, maybe, it’s the end of a chemical love affair “searching for a spark to sustain / though this needle can’t find a vein”. Love as a withdrawal symptom – Hangnail is a darker song than it sounds on first listen. And that sets the tone for this excellent album.
There’s a more conventional, but equally unhappy, love displayed on Emmaline, where Mulholland sings of the lingering old love that she has yet to fully displace “Emmaline I believed it was over” she declares, over a gently strummed acoustic guitar, which builds and takes a harder edge from strident bass notes as she acknowledges that “jealousy is cunning and cruel / he destroys me not the memory of you”. Delicately adorned with mournful violin it’s a haunting piece of American Gothic, with Emmeline’s memory taking on a spectral presence on the periphery of vision. There’s more of the otherworldly feel on the instrumental The Hunt which rolls a ramshackle path of percussion over more perfect folky fiddle, and it acts as an unsettling introduction to Bite The Way which has Andrew Penner singing of a deadly tool box “I found a hammer and I found a bore and I found an action that’ll make your fingers sore”. Having assembled the makings of a hand gun Penner goes on to make a murderous plan “I made a map of all my friends houses / I had a notion that they’ll all meet one day, but not in heaven”. With a strident beat it’s like a glimpse into an unstable mind, one writhing with evil intent.
It’s the balance of crunching guitar and unsettling percussion coupled with edgy fiddle tunes that forms the musical palette for Call to Arms, and it’s the perfect combination of Mulholland and Penner’s vocals that take that distinctive sound and lift it higher and make it a memorable listen. As debut’s go this is darn near to perfect, and Harrow Fair are going to gather a garland – or maybe a wreath – of fine reviews for it.
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Harrow Fair sounds like a jolly day out amongst rural folk but don’t be taken in – there are deep waters here, and quite possibly something unpleasant lurking just below the surface. A memorable debut.