Are you ready for a feast of Kiwi-eclecticism?
At first we thought nothing much of Aldous Harding. Between all the loud and proggy stuff we usually listen to, a singer-songwriter with a soft voice has no place here right? Well, it was the main reason that 2019’s Designer did not make it to the end of the year list.
In retrospect, a foolish decision because a month later we realised that Aldous’ third was of purest quality and had a very sophisticated edge. So, we were wrong to leave Designer lying in the corner just to collect dust. As of today all three of her records are on high rotation on a regular basis. Warm Chris therefore should be a more than welcome addition. Devotees of the New Zealand singer-songwriter will know that Aldous Harding is a one of a kind songwriter who is constantly changing her sonics. In essence no album is the same. From folk, ballad-centred to spoken word, Harding seems to fold her voice towards any style she likes. This diverse vocal identity is completely set loose on Warm Chris. Harding now seems to choose a musical direction on the spot which makes this fourth a strange feast of eclecticism and also a tough nut to crack.
Many feasts start off slow and so does Warm Chris. The album really gets going when the second track, Tick Tock, begins. Harding showcases a sort of medley that centres around various vocal personages. On one moment she sings with acoustic strumming in the background and on the second she’ll put more power in her voice or just start speaking. Harding skilfully manages to keep together her multisided identities throughout the song so things don’t end up in a cacophony. The addition of a flute and a Mac DeMarco-like banjo later on even make Tick Tock a radio friendly song. The fact that Harding keeps playing around with her personages and ends in quirky toddler noises is easily missed due to the laid back instrumentation.
The fun then suddenly is left for a high fidelity pop song. On Fever Harding returns to the sublime production of Designer. Although it’s a great but straightforward listen on its own, the song would be better off as an extra on a future deluxe reissue of Designer. For a second the same thought arose for the title track that transported us back to the subtle ballads of Harding’s sophomore album Party (2017). Yet, the not so subtle twist of a simple guitar chord that sets up Harding’s vocals to interchange between soft verse and a higher pitched chorus gives the impression that something progresive is brooding. Again Harding, together with producer John Parish, doesn’t press on. Instead at the midpoint of the album two breezy pop songs, Lawn and Passion Babe, get your feet tapping and your head bobbing but also obstructs any need to innovate.
After all breeziness three signature Aldous Harding ballads bring some coherence to the table. She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain is the most notable of the set as it builds from bleak beginnings to a masterfully produced work about romance. A calm horn section matched by a banjo now and then fills a bit of the empty space in which Harding is narrating an uncertain love story. From here the album seems destined to fizzle out. Closer Leathery Whip however surprises. Supported by an organ, guitar and a beat, Harding playfully sings about life: “I’m a little bit older but remain unchanged”. The last word is cue for many of her younger characters to run free telling us that life will come at us with a leathery whip, if we like it or not.
Of all albums Harding made in the past years, Warm Chris is easily her weakest. Even for an eclectic work the sum of parts is almost shockingly aimless. Songwise there are no real disappointments. Even a handful of them show a very creative promise but why release them in this unfinished manner? Is Warm Chris just a demo recording or a best of compilation with new songs? Or… wait, let’s stop the rhetorical questioning because she doesn’t deserve this right? It’s best to just constructively conclude that Warm Chris is nice enough to give a spin at any given time of the year and without any doubt also holds the potential to be a positive turning point for following releases.
Label: 4AD, 2022
Buy it here: https://4ad.com/releases/968
- Ennui (4:38)
- Tick Tock (3:39)
- Fever (4:17)
- Warm Chris (3:46)
- Lawn (3:37)
- Passion Babe (3:33)
- She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain (4:28)
- Staring at the Henry Moore (3:19)
- Bubbles (3:55)
- Leathery Whip (4:00)
- Ali Chant – backing vocals
- Aldous Harding – acoustic guitar, piano, electric piano, vocals
- Gavin Fitzjohn – flugelhorn, horn, baritone saxophone
- H. Hawkline – banjo, bass, guitar, organ
- Hopey Parish – backing vocals
- Jason Williamson – backing vocals
- John Parish – bass, drums, electric guitar, keyboards, organ, percussion, shaker, slide guitar, tambourine
- Seb Rochford – drums
Review by Wander Meulemans // 030522
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