Harrow Fair is the new project from Miranda Mulholland (Great Lake Swimmers, Belle Star) and Andrew Penner (Sunparlour Players), who celebrated the release of their debut album Call To Arms with a record release show at the Dakota on Tuesday night.
Much like Penner’s work with Sunparlour Players, the band favours stripped down, gritty arrangements often driven by Penner stomping on the kick drum. This isn’t just an extension of Sunparlour though – it’s just as much Mulholland’s thing and her voice and fiddle were quite prominently featured throughout the night. Songs from the album such as “Bite The Way” and “Hangnail” sounded great, as did their set closing cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” And while that’s a song that’s been covered to death, it’s still a great song, and to hear it done well is always a treat.
Call To Arms is out now via Roaring Girl Records/Fontana North.
Toronto – If there is one thing that I hope people have taken away from my years of writing for the Panic Manual, it is this: I highly recommend that you go see the Sunparlour Players live. Judging by the size of crowds the band still gets in Toronto, either I have failed to be very convincing, or I’m just not being read by that many people.
It’s too bad, because if there’s one thing that the SPP show last Saturday night cemented in my mind, it’s that this is the best live band I know, by far.
It was a particularly satisfying evening. Not only were SPP fantastic, but the opening acts were decent (one a lot moreso than the other, but still), and my wife and I successfully managed to have our first real evening out since our baby was born several months ago. We enjoy parenting more than I can express, but I’m not going to lie: getting away for an evening felt great.
The Strumbellas were up first, a self-described “bluegrass-inspired indie rock” band that I wasn’t familiar with, but who impressed me enough that I likely would’ve bought their album at the show, if only that were possible (their debut comes out sometime in February). Inspired, high-energy stuff from this seven-piece band, who really ripped it up. You have to wonder if the energy of their live show will translate into a good record, something the Sunparlour Players struggle with sometimes, but they seem to have some interesting lyrics so that should help. A band worth keeping an eye on. They were followed by Harlan Pepper, a group of 19 year olds (or so they claim; if I were working the door, I would’ve carded them for sure) with a surprisingly retro roots-rock sound. Though they started tight and impressed with a few of their tunes, their set largely dissolved into chaos after frontman Dan Edmonds declared his guitar was “f***ed up,” at which point he switched to keys and the music switched from recognizable songs to a long stretch of solos and noodling punctuated by the occasional familiar riff and ending with a half-hearted cover of Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.” Not a bad set, but it could’ve used a little more coherence.
The Sunparlour Players, subsequently, started off somewhat gingerly. Their set opened nicely enough with “Runner,” the opening track from their new album, but during the first four or five songs the band was tentative, particularly frontman Andrew Penner, who seemed almost nervous to be back playing in Toronto in a headlining role after touring Ontario with the Sadies for the last couple of months.
However, five songs in the band launched into their infamous cover of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck,” a tune which is worth the price of admission to a Sunparlour Players show by itself. Afterwards, Penner remarked something along the lines of “that’s more like it,” and the band was back to their familiar, dynamic selves: Michael Rosenthal killing it on percussion, looking to all the world like he’s having the time of his life, Dennis Van Dine looking relatively composed on bass and keys, effortlessly driving the fast-paced numbers and slowing time for the ballads, and Penner, singing as though his sanity depended on it.
The band stormed through the rest of their set and two encores, breathing life into some songs on their new album that sound a little subdued on record, hitting only a couple of highlights of their second album, Wave North, like “O Captain” and “Point Pelee is the Place to Be!”, but really bringing the house down with the songs they played from their debut, Hymns for the Happy. “If the Creeks Don’t Rise,” “Dyin’ Today,” “John had a Bell and a Whistle,” “The Detroit River is Alive,” and finally “Talk it to Death” to end things off – these songs are the ones that sent their longtime fans home happy, even if some of them (including my wife and I) had seen them done four or five times already.
I’ll say it again: if you like live music, see the Sunparlour Players sometime. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
Toronto – I find myself in something of a music rut lately. You know what I mean: it’s the sort of rut that sees you making lacklustre mix CD’s for the car filled with tunes you played to death five years ago and filling your mp3 player with old Nas and Four Tet albums for something a little different, that kind of thing. I could be getting old and nostalgic, ready to make the permanent switch to oldies and “light favourites” stations. Or possibly ten weeks of diaper changes and spit-up has been a little distracting for me. One or the other.
The solution to these doldrums? Quite possibly a new Sunparlour Players album.
Not to beat a dead horse or anything, as I’ve gone on emphatically about the Sunparlour Players many times before. One of the best, most intense live acts I’ve seen, Us Little Devils is the band’s third studio album after 2007’s Hymns for the Happy and 2009’s Wave North.
As good as the band is in a live setting, it’s probably fair to say that their studio efforts have been a little hit or miss as far as capturing some of that live energy. So does the new album overcome the limitations of their past recordings and deliver a consistently good album from start to finish? Well…no, not really. It’s only got a couple of the sort of “storytelling” tracks that are one of the band’s big songwriting strengths, like the sample track below, “Green Thumb”. I can appreciate the band is trying a few new things, as they clearly went for a bit more of a mainstream pop/rock kind of feel on a lot of tracks, but this doesn’t always mesh well with their folksy, roots base. By my count, only three tracks out of twelve are really outstanding, with the rest ranging from “decent” to “ok.”
Of course, a Sunparlour Players album is really just something to listen to so you can learn the choruses to the new songs and sing along with them during the live shows. When I listen to this album I find myself mostly looking forward to hearing the live renditions and finding out how the band can pull off some of the harmonies and rich sounds with only the three of them on stage, where they’ll occasionally play five or six instruments at once between them during any given song. In the end, the new album is just ok, and probably not enough to shake me from my music malaise, but a new Sunparlour Players tour with new material to check out is something to look forward to. Check them out if you get the chance on their upcoming Ontario tour and the cross-Canada tour that’s likely to follow, you definitely won’t regret it.
Sunparlour Players Ontario Fall Tour Dates:
11/25 Ottawa, ON – NAC Fourth Stage
11/29 St.Catherines, ON – The Mansion House
12/1 Kingston, ON – Zappa’s Lounge *
12/2 Peterborough, ON – The Red Dog*
12/3 London, ON – Call The Office*
12/4 Guelph, ON – Van Gogh’s *
12/8 Windsor, ON – The Capital Theatre *
12/9 Hamilton, ON – The Casbah *
12/10 Toronto, ON – The Great Hall
If I’ve had a more personally eventful year than 2009, I don’t know when it would’ve been. I started the year unemployed in Toronto. As I write this I’ve just gotten back from a weekend in Copenhagen to my apartment in The Hague, Netherlands, where I’m living for another few months working for a prominent international organization. I’m also spending the Holidays in Amsterdam, Paris, and Rome. So that’s been a bit of a change.
At the start of 2009 I also had all of four articles under my belt at this esteemed website. After press passes to the Toronto Jazz Festival, the Hillside Music Festival and Summerworks, plus a number of movies, concerts, and album reviews, I’m somewhere around ten times that now, despite only writing one post since mid-August. Sorry about that.
I also replaced my old Creative Zen player after it went through the washing machine in the pocket of my shorts with a pair of Etymotic ER-6i plugs, which are just terrific, and a Cowon D2, which is said to have some of the highest sound quality of any portable media player out there. So virtually everything sounds better to me this year than last. This may be worth keeping in mind, as I wax poetic about how amazing a year in music 2009 was…