For those of us who are relatively ignorant of New Zealand’s creative industries it is tempting to think that the country’s output is limited to Peter Jackson, Flight of the Conchords and Katherine Mansfield. Sure, there have been some more than decent bands down the years – from the Flying Nun label’s impressive roster in the 1980s, admired by Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus amongst others, to more recent bands like The Ruby Suns – but none of them have had a huge amount of exposure in Europe or North America. Whether Christchurch resident Aldous Harding can change that remains to be seen, but on the strength her self-titled debut album she certainly deserves to.
A comparison with the short stories of Katherine Mansfield is not necessarily a bad place to start. Opening track Stop Your Tears with its references to Baudelaire is full of small, domestic details that before you know it have swelled into something big and mysterious. Lyrically it is full of ambiguities, hinting at the darkness underneath the veneer of social respectability. Musically, it is darkly gothic: the deep, chanting backing vocals stay just the right side of melodrama and the acoustic guitar is spidery, insistent.
Hunter is livelier, with a soft, imploring chorus, but the subject matter remains black. In both of these first two songs Harding uses the motif of a river with all the movement, natural beauty and danger it implies. Here though it runs with blood.
And that, in simple terms, is the story of this album: the coexistence of explicit beauty and hidden pain. Two Hidden Hearts, for example, is a simple tale delivered in lo-fi folk mode, a la Will Oldham, with the unnerving wobble of what sounds like a ghostly theremin. And Beast is like the dark side of Vashti Bunyan, Harding beseeching ‘Bring me a man who is sweet’ to a brief and unpretentious plucked guitar. Also present are the old-timey country-folk of Merriweather and the lengthy narrative of No Peace, whose minimal musical backdrop gives free rein to Harding’s hushed but clear vocals.
Part of Harding’s weirdness and wildness can perhaps be traced back to a love of the classic literature of fantasy fiction. Two songs, Titus Groan and Titus Alone (the latter basically a pared-back version of the former) take their names from Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. But it would be wrong to suggest that all of this album’s magic comes from obvious references like these. The greater power is hidden under the surface of the songs, and remains so, even on repeated listens. In fact, this is the kind of album that moves you in ways you can’t quite fathom. Sometimes, as a reviewer, you have to put your hands up and say, ‘I’m sorry. These songs are beautiful but I don’t know why.’ It’s at times like this – when you know something is good but you’re not quite sure how to convey just how good it is – that you are tempted to reach for the stockpile of overused adjectives (‘dreamlike’, ‘enigmatic’) knowing that they will come up some way short. At these times, it’s often best to stop writing and just listen.
Review by: Thomas Blake
Stop Your Tears (Live)
Released November 3rd via Spunk Records