Aldous Harding
Flying Nun

WHAT is it about Lyttelton? For years it has been a portside community of bohemian artisans, folkies, misfits, wharfies and Russian sailors selling caviar.

The tunnel kept Christchurch at arm’s length. The harbour wrapped around Banks Peninsula until the earthquakes shook off it’s rocky veneer.

Perhaps resilience is at the heart of such movements. Story telling of struggles, obstacles, isolation and lost love, is at the heart of the Lyttelton music scene.

Sounds by The Eastern, Delaney Davidson, Marlon Williams and Nadia Reid have been expertly captured by the label, Lyttelton Records.

These artists have developed , through relentless touring, a huge New Zealand and international audience, collecting fine reviews for their craft. Aldous Harding sits amongst this fine stable of artists.

Now based in Wales and Bristol, in the United Kingdom, she has released her third album, Designer, following on from the success of award-winning Party. Produced by John Parish, who is the guiding hand behind the success of PJ Harvey, Harding takes her songwriting and musicianship to the next level.

Where Party had audiences in a spin with it’s emotional intensity, Designer is more playful, and finds her in a happier place.

Parish is a taskmaster, who stretches Harding to give her full vocal range, but allows freedom to explore the simplicity of folk, pop and rock. She is well known for her facial gymnastics, exhalations and theatre, and one can imagine the contortions that the microphone were positioned to pick up.

The album is dangerously full of earworms, hooks and vamps, pastoral nonsense, literal shanties and cryptic doggerels. Her lyrics are part of her own world and invention, a code that isn’t our’s to crack.

The album has two varied sides, playful and fearless, cathartic and mindful. Side A is full of stripped back melody, as opener, Fixture Picture, with its “You can’t be pure and in love” teasing lyric and superb chorus.

Designer is pastoral folk pop and Zoo Eyes asks “What am I doing in Dubai”, with a low baritone vocal that flutters to a recorder high pitch, wrapped in a simple snare drum and nylon guitar strum. Its repeated finale serves up “It’s the greatest show on Earth, You shall receive” that needn’t be deciphered, just admired.

Fans of Kate Bush, Cate Le Bon, Vashti Bunyan and Sufjan Stevens won’t be alarmed at Harding’s confidence and fraility. Her hit The Barrel has a killer chorus and layers of spoken, sung and exclaimed vocals.

Harding often sings with a knowing nudge and a wink, “I know something that you don’t”, and that allure is part of the album’s enchantment. It serves the tradition of folk music and storytelling that it’s fine to be away with the fairies.

Side 2 descends into less and less space from Damn and the groovy bossanova of Weight of the Planets.

Slow, deliberate bass clarinet, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it guitar lick, two-finger piano chords and violin sweeping in and out, are features of the easy arrangements. The production is clever in its lack of obvious technology.

Side 2 is so stripped back at the end to just guitar on Heaven is Empty, or piano and well-rounded vocals on Pilot, that the listener has travelled the high, but can be content that the emptiness is still a fine hopeful state to be in.

Sound advice
Music review
by Chris Casey