Tony Stamp reviews the latest album from theatrical folk maverick Aldous Harding, a hugely diverse array of talent on Auckland label Sunreturn’s debut compilation and a selection of 60s soul classics by the heavily sampled Syl Johnson .
Warm Chris by Aldous Harding
Every time Aldous Harding releases an album, the music press clamors where it comes from. What does all this mean? For his latest, there seems to be a wave of resignation that no one will ever understand. Or maybe there is nothing to understand. Harding has been riding a wave that has been hers for a while now, and the beauty of her writing is that, while well thought out, it feels impulsive and impulsive.
And as any fan of instrumental music will attest, lack of meaning doesn’t make something meaningless. And those leads are nine of the best Rorschach hearing tests you’ll find.
Harding has always been theatrical, and on Warm Chris, it feels like she’s playing a different character in every song more than ever. It mostly depends on how she uses her voice. At Designate she mostly stayed within her soprano range, and listening to this album, one gets the sense that some quirkiness may have been sacrificed in the name of consistency.
On tracks like “Fever,” she pushes her vocals down a register, to the kind of upbeat, upbeat melody that defines this album. ‘Lawn’ is even sunnier, its voice high again, adding to the pastoral atmosphere.
Musically, the album is understated – there’s nothing more dramatic here than ‘Horizon’, from his album Partybut there’s a lot of variety, and that extends to accents.
On the title track, she leans into her Kiwi accent, but there’s a lot of Australian in the vowels. On ‘Tick Tock’ she tries Scottish for the word ‘country’, and ‘Passion Babe’ is something else entirely – a bit of posh English perhaps, but also a kind of disaffected recklessness in the way she holds or not each note.
Speaking to Pitchfork recently about how she puts in vocals, Harding said “I don’t feel like different guys aren’t mine to use,” and I understand that’s part of her artistic impulse, but I also think it speaks to the thing that people underestimate about her – she’s really funny.
This part of the puzzle landed for me when I saw it live. The way she acts on impulse, whether it’s making faces, changing her posture, or her voice, makes a child feel a little silly, and they’re all intentionally funny. Plus, she tells jokes – between songs and within them.
I think her great skill at arranging chords and writing melodies made people adopt a certain reverence when dealing with her, but one only has to watch her recent music videos for laughter to be a legitimate response.
Calling a song “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” is pretty funny at first glance. When you realize it’s reversing the “you made such a mountain / it won’t come back” line, it’s even more fun. And musically, it’s remarkable – a sparse piano riff that hovers around the blurred area theme, later joined by a thematically appropriate banjo.
Aldous Harding has been based in Wales for the past few years, but speaking to interviewers at her mother’s home in Geraldine, outside Christchurch, she said that was where she felt most At her place.
She seems to strike people as an enigma, but honestly, I feel like I’ve known a lot of Aldous Hardings – people who grew up in a small town, who have an endless well of creativity in them, who don’t are waiting for an outlet. Apart from her enormous musical gifts, she never backed down from her impulses, no matter how stupid. When I see the headlines wondering who the real Aldous Harding is, I think “she’s been in front of us all this time”.
See you on the horizon by Sunreturn
The roster of small to medium sized independent record labels in New Zealand is in great shape in 2022. This has been predicted since major record labels started consolidating and streaming started to affect revenue, and my impression from the outside is that between Trace Untrace in Dunedin, Melted Ice Cream in Christchurch, Meetinghouse in Wellington and others, there is a really vibrant selection of boutique outfits with a healthy community around each one. And they all have their own distinct personality.
Sunreturn is an Auckland label which, quite transparently, is run by former RNZ Music employee Zac Arnold. And it’s a testament to his special taste in music that the label’s debut compilation is so varied, but somehow it all fits together.
The music of this compilation See you on the horizon ranges from hardcore punk to Krautrock homage, hip hop to dancefloor fillers, and if I had to pick one guideline, it would be the slightly anti-establishment vibe that runs through it.
Dateline’s “Dumb For My Age” is a quintessentially New Zealand piece of self-mockery, but it’s the “for my age” part that remains, part surrender, part sarcastic kiss. There’s a line about getting “five stars for being only half bad” that sums up the self-awareness of it all, and the wonky guitars that intentionally tune and detune are reminiscent of Pavement and Sonic. Youth, two relatively traditional bands who liked to reverse their position.
At the other end of the spectrum is Amamelia, whose rave anthem “So Good” uses aspects of Madchester, trip-hop, progressive breaks and tropicalia to create a nostalgic touch of dancefloor action. Cult favorite party goers Baby Zionov and Powernap are also there, sharing their respective four-voice anthems.
Near the end of the lineup is his only hip hop track, courtesy of DlblDbl featuring LVJ and Pollyhill. Called ‘Big Mike’, it sounds like a reprimand from the gatekeepers of the industry, with the repeated phrase ‘we don’t need you anymore’
It’s this attitude – stubborn, indifferent to the mainstream – that fuels the album. It’s the connective tissue between how DblDbl spits bars on independence and how band NT Honey embrace lo-fi recording on their song “Runaway,” opting for authenticity over studio. .
I’m an eclectic person, so Sunreturn’s debut compilation has it all from the start. Each track has a sense of fun and experimentation, and a kind of lack of attention that is its main positive attribute.
Green Grove’s song ‘Time’ is wisely saved for last. It’s a hypnotic motorik groove with baritone interjections, and in a stroke of genius it’s about the passage of time, a concept that goes hand in hand with methodically timed music like krautrock. “It ticks and it knocks,” sings Durham Fenwick, appropriately.
Self-aware and a bit sarcastic, it’s a great way to end this selection of music, diverse but like-minded, and recklessly doing its own thing.
Twinight’s Complete Singles by Syl Johnson
When soul singer Syl Johnson died in February at the age of 85, outlets like The Guardian and Rolling Stone led their coverage with how often his music had been sampled or repurposed by modern producers. In the 80s and 90s, samples of his tracks were featured on tracks like Public Enemy and Cypress Hill, leading to a resurgence in Johnson’s profile. In a 2010 interview, he spoke of being underestimated during his career, saying he was “more soulful than Marvin”. [Gaye]funkier than james [Brown]. I’ve been underestimated all my life.
To listen Twinight’s Complete Singles, which collects the songs from fifteen singles he released in just four years in the late ’60s, it’s hard not to agree. Twenty-nine titles and not a miss among them.
Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA once called Syl Johnson “an unsung pioneer of musical fusion,” when it comes to how his music has influenced hip hop so much, and aside from the musical snippets that rap producers were going to use, it’s there in the attitude of this music too.
“Annie Got Hot Pants Power” has fun, lascivious lyrics like “I got a crook on my neck looking your way / you caused a ten-car crash yesterday,” and its groove and precise musicality blow me away. every time I listen to this.
The lyrics to “Different Strokes” are also surprisingly ridiculous for a song written in 1967. It’s also its most sampled – especially its growling opening drum break, which also features a laughing Minnie Ripperton.
But while Johnson could funk and sleaze with the best of them – and the horn line on this track is truly one of the best – he also tackled social issues, most famously with the song “Is It Because I’m Black”, written in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King. The frank simplicity of his words is always heartbreaking.
“Together Forever” is another song that confronts racism with empathy, this time adding to the emotion with an exquisite string section.
After Syl Johnson left Twinight Records and signed with Hi, he had the biggest hit of his career with “Take Me To The River” written by Al Green and later covered by Talking Heads.
Decades later, when he heard how many rap albums he was on, he asked kids in his neighborhood to listen to hip-hop tapes and report back if they found him. on one of them. He successfully sued Kanye West and Jay-Z, and in 2010 told the New York Times, “I’ll never have to worry about money because of rappers again.”
His place in history is secured by the conversation between his music and all the hip hop that has been inspired by it, and returning to listening to the focus of quality during this four-year span on Twinight Records, I’m Glad his legacy never faded.