Aldous Harding / Photo: Clare Shilland
Aldous Harding: Warm Chris LP | 2022
Released in March 2022, Warm Chris is Aldous Harding’s fourth album, the third for her international independent record company 4AD (home to the Cocteau Twins, Throwing Muses, Pixies, Kristin Hersh, Belly, TV and The Radio, Bon Iver, The National, etc.). Flying Nun has released all four albums in New Zealand. Flying Nun gave her a start, but the resources at her disposal via her relationship with 4AD and their considerable commercial ability to support her talent have allowed her to make fully realised albums that connect with her steadily growing international audience.
Harding’s origins are in Lyttelton on New Zealand’s South Island. It is a port town on the inside of an extinct volcano and is the bohemian haunt of artists and musicians. Harding’s family background is musical, with her mother a recognised folk singer. These folk music connections can be consistently heard in her music. As well as being spotted busking in Geraldine by Anika Moa, Harding became a part of Adam McGrath’s country folk institution, The Eastern, with its revolving troupe of musicians (including Marlon Williams and Reb Fountain) before she was out doing her own thing.
I doubt Warm Chris is an album that could have been made in New Zealand. Harding was living in Cardiff, South Wales, before returning to Lyttelton Harbour. Warm Chris was recorded back in the UK at Rockpool Studios with a core grouping of Harding, producer John Parish, drummer Seb Fitzjohn and multi-instrumentalist H. Hawkline (the solo support act on the recent New Zealand tour).
Aldous Harding live at Tractor Tavern, 2019 / Photo by Michael Miller
After working on Harding’s previous two albums, Party and Designer, John Parish is again involved. After producing or being closely involved in making 7 of PJ Harvey's albums and being key to the development of her singular career, he seems a perfect match for Harding. Her previous Parrish produced albums, Party and Designer, were artistic and commercial triumphs, and Warm Chris seems more concentratedly so.
Aldous Harding - Warm Chris album cover
Much of the appeal of the earlier albums was in the eclectic mix of genres on display. With Warm Chris, there is less of a mix of musical genres and more of a core that is folk. It’s often clear to hear that at the beginning of many of the songs. Harding’s remarkably expressive voice soon joins songs that begin with an acoustic guitar intro, and then the other instruments come in to enhance and build the song into its complete shape. Harding’s performances can be very inward-looking. The band's ensemble style enhances, dilutes or deflects this to a degree. At the recent performance at the St James, the folk aspect was evident, as was the underlying fragility of much of this work.
The show begins with a great deal of awkward body language with Harding’s blank expression and rigid, awkward movements, which puts the audience on edge as if waiting for the performance to break down or spin apart. After several songs, the tension has built further before it is defused, with Harding addressing the audience. "You seem nervous". She understands the dynamics at play, the artist and the music appears to be fragile, but the reverse is true, the music is deceptively well constructed and sturdy, and the artist has been toying with us. She is in control.
Aldous Harding live at The St James Theatre, Wellington 2022 / Photo by Ben Howe
‘She’ll be Coming Around the Mountain’ is an old gospel song (we sang it as a folk song when I was at school in the 1960s) but has little to connect it to Harding’s song of the same name. Virtually all the songs are built on something seemingly familiar—bits of hardwired popular music fragments that Harding embellishes and spins into things of incredible beauty. With the languid mid-tempo of the songs, it should be hard to animate or activate them into something catchy and complete. Harding turns it into another part of the magical complexity of the material. Melody is a critical component and key alongside her voice's remarkable range and flexibility. All of this is adventurously fun stuff, with the music stretched to fit over the crucial element here, the song.
Plenty of the quality songs on Warm Chris have a mix of emotion, a clash of the experimental with pop, juxtaposing the open and engaging with the opaque and mysterious; this is integral to their success. Songs such as ‘Ennui’, ‘Staring at the Henry Moore’, 'Fever’, ‘Tick Tock’ and ‘Lawn’ all equal the best of Harding’s oeuvre. Almost all of the Warm Chris songs were played at her Wellington show, along with a smattering of highlights from her other albums.
Aldous Harding albums always have several singular songs that are the album's highlight, showcase the best qualities of the songwriter and are destined to remain with the listener. Harding is a serious songwriter who is appropriately taken seriously by her songwriting peers, who voted ‘The Barrel’ the winner of the Apra Silver Scroll in 2019. ‘Leathery Whip’ is one of many contenders for best song on Warm Chris. A song is given more menace with a little vocal contribution by the Seaford Mod’s Jason Williamson. As always, the lyrics are inscrutable; the listener knows they have some greater meaning but soon comes to understand its full appreciation will be a pleasurable long-term project. It is all part of the experience of enjoying the work of Aldous Harding. In live and recorded performances, Aldous Harding is rewardingly enjoyable, magical and deeply mysterious.
Aldous Harding’s Warm Chris was a New Zealand Number One album in April 2022, Flying Nun’s first since The Chills Submarine Bells in 1990.