Cold Snap/Zoë

The land looms large on Sarah Harmer’s new record—not just the hills and valleys of bluegrass but also the dramatic topology of the Niagara Escarpment, a biosphere reserve threatened by commercial exploitation and the place where the Canadian singer-songwriter was raised. I’m a Mountain took shape during a series of performances held by Harmer and her band along the Escarpment’s Bruce Trail, and it shows: “If they blow a hole in my backyard,” she sings on “Escarpment Blues,” “everyone is gonna run away.” Harmer, a veteran of alt-country’s little-known Weeping Tile, nabbed a Juno Award for Adult Alternative Album of the Year with her previous album, 2004’s darker, atmospheric All of Our Names. I’m a Mountain travels a decidedly dustier path than that record: Out are the drums, synths, and ambient guitars; in are the banjos, mandolins, and fiddles. The disc’s 11 tracks are, not surprisingly, all mountain songs. On both the sprightly “The Phoenix” and the sleepier “Oleander,” Harmer balances her eye for nature with a talent for avoiding sounding like a bumper sticker: “And those white blossoms that you gave freely/Are now just twinkles in your eye,” she sings sweetly to a neglected house plant on the latter. Less appealing is the French-language lullaby “Salamandre,” whose lyrics (by adult-contemp compatriot Kate Fenner) are about as subtle as an ode to a friendly lizard, a secret map, and a golden tree can be. A cover of Dolly Parton’s “Will He Be Waiting for Me”—a parable of arable land that elides the distinctions between heavenly and earthly lovin’—nicely showcases Harmer’s affection not just for the land but also for the people on it. Ditto for “Goin’ Out,” the title track, and “I Am Aglow,” on which those same folks are dyin’, survivin’, or just tryin’ to figure out what the hell they’re doin’. It was Parton’s own career-reviving return to bluegrass, begun with 1999’s The Grass Is Blue, that prompted her to quip, “you gotta get rich in order to sing like you’re poor again.” Harmer may not boast Parton’s pocketbook—or even her famous topography—but on I’m a Mountain, she proves she’s capable of some notable peaks of her own. —Mario Correa