Like I said, there’s some great music coming out of New Zealand lately. But last week’s The Beths don’t have much in common with this week’s Aldous Harding. To the same degree the former are loud and upbeat, the latter is restrained and maxes out at what I’d call barely midtempo. Where the former present themselves as a completely traditional rock act, the latter brings a striking, heavily choreographed, frequently discomforting visual element to her music. The former pen lyrics that are lucid and droll; the latter skews impressionistic (the chorus of her most notable song to date includes the line “Looks like a date is set / Show the ferret to the egg”).
Born Hannah Sian Topp, Harding comes from a folk background, and her albums haven’t diverged much from that direction. And yet, the more you sit with what at first seem to be pleasant acoustic ballads, the more odd details begin to stand out. There are those lyrics, filled with vivid imagery but hard to pin down. Then there’s Harding’s voice itself, which can sound fascinatingly different from song to song – compare the sweet, higher voice in “Fixture Picture” with the strangely clipped, deeper voice used on “Imagining My Man,” a highlight from her previous LP. Hers is a complex instrument, and I’m not sure I can think of another current singer who exhibits the same kind of textural range, or the same confidence in exploring it.
Then there’s the whole visual aspect. I was surprised when I first watched the video for “The Barrel” (the song with the ferret chorus), which consists of Harding dancing like a broken animatronic while wearing some kind of puritanical nightmare dress, and a hat that I’m not even going to try to describe. At one point the hat covers her entire head, and then there’s some kind of warped Kabuki mask, and it’s all pretty upsetting and captivating and not at all what I’d thought the video for this pleasant acoustic ballad was going to be.
“Fixture Picture” comes from the same LP, 2019’s Designer. Like “The Barrel,” it’s meditative and acoustic, but with a more subtly psychedelic melody and soaring chord progression. Harding’s unique visual style drives this video as well – the first verse and chorus are one slow zoom as she strums a guitar among the mountains, face once again concealed by an oversized hat (this time the outfit has more of a Michael Palin/Spanish Inquisition vibe), and then she proceeds to awkwardly harass her bandmates with a tambourine. It’s good stuff.
Harding clearly already has a strong, defined artistic sensibility, and I think she’ll be as exciting to watch evolve over the next decade as The Beths, in a completely different way.