Needless to say, music and trends go hand in hand, and the music world has a lot to owe to certain tendencies that have given rise to artists and even entire genres that may have never received such a degree of recognition otherwise. Of course, however, with any given musical trend, there is required a great deal of perseverance and patience to sift through the ten-a-penny acts who do little more than appeal to its very broad, middle-of-the-road, vogue trappings and bring something new and interesting to the table, or at least execute the fundamental tenets of their particular style so well as to make up for a lack of originality with an exceptional standard of expertise. These specialised and routinely replicated artistic inclinations can exist on any level of mainstream exposure and across any genre, and a trend that has emerged amongst contemporary and indie folk scenes in recent years pertains to a niche style of female singer-songwriter. In particular, there has been a substantial surge in the amount of folk songstresses who play to a very specific territory, comprised of homespun-sounding and borderline lo-fi recordings, a soft, wispy vocal inflection that espouses a soothing and almost ambient tone, and a generally hushed and intimate aesthetic whose salient point of appeal resides in its tranquil, emotive, meditative minimalism. Whilst there has been a bevy of artists to tread this path who have balanced plaintive atmospherics with strong songwriting skills to great effect, with a recent example being Marissa Nadler and her release from last year, Strangers, this trend is nevertheless one that pertains to such a particular niche that I have often found such musicians to be too clearly cut from the same cloth as their contemporaries to leave an especially marked impression on me, with many of these acts, in fact, seemingly blending into one all too often. Although very much of the same ilk as many of these artists, and even with a gothic edge to her image that is evocative of Nadler, Aldous Harding is one such singer-songwriter who has tried to go that extra mile and take the road less travelled as to stand out from her peers. In the case of her sophomore album, Party, however, whilst there is undoubtedly an effort made to capture an enthralling, ethereal sound that seemingly balances beauty and intimacy with a brooding, nocturnal and monochrome sonic palette, many of Harding’s sleights of hand throughout the tracklisting only just scratch the surface for what could make her brand of gothic folk as eye-catching as it appears on paper. What’s more, some of the quirks that the songstress employs for the purposes of shaking things up don’t always entirely stick the landing, with some spotty production choices emphasising these issues. There is most definitely a flair for an endearing primitivism in Hardy’s sombre indie folk stylings across Party, but the artist doesn’t always engage with these ideas with the compositional chops and overall artistic commitment that could make them truly stand out.
There is undoubtedly an enticing amount of charm to be found in the earthy elegance of Party, and, in terms of its aesthetic presentation, the muted and somewhat languid nature of the record’s rustic and almost cassette-quality timbre makes for an appropriately fragile and pastel tone to suit Harding’s dainty and intimate vocal performances. It’s to this end that the brief opening track, Blend, is a relatively compelling introduction into Harding’s artistic vision, with the musician’s delicate, multi-tracked singing swaddling the listener in the warm but dark resonance of her understated performance. It’s in the production and instrumentation, however, wherein the low-key and lonely veneer of many of these songs can be lost in translation. In terms of the mixing across Party, Harding opts for an understandably conventional and accessible approach for the most part, with the singer’s vocals being placed very much at the forefront of the mix, with a mere smattering of reverb employed to capture that subtle, ethereal quality, whilst the rest of the rather limited instrumentation is crisp and clear, but mixed as to sound like a very distant accompaniment to Harding’s airy vocals. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this formula in principle, it’s one that is utilised so often for this type of dreamy indie folk music that it would require some spectacular songcraft and unique melodic touches to be at all conspicuous within today’s musical climate, and Harding’s approach to composing seldom pushes into any particularly innovative or interesting territory. The singer’s contemplative crooning on the title track, for instance, sees some familiar vocal melodies loom above an even more familiar chord progression, with the piece’s development being largely reliant on gradual alterations to the instrumentation that struggle to pick up any semblance of momentum, instead striking points of listlessness. Harding’s vocal melodies on cuts such as Imagining My Man and Living the Classics also fall into some habitual patterns, with the latter being reminiscent of Elliott Smith’s ear for melody-writing, whilst other tracks, most notably What If Birds Aren’t Singing They’re Screaming, feature some rather clunky line delivery from the singer as a result of the lyrics’ notably cramped syllabic metre. The choice to adhere to a very orthodox production style for this style of music also seems somewhat misguided, as Harding’s attitude towards performing often comes across as best suited for other techniques. Most notably, the prominence of her vocals in the mix can smother certain songs at times, with this being particularly prominent on many of the acoustic-driven ballads like The World Is Looking For You and Swell Does the Skull, which can take the listener out of the feeling of intimacy for which Harding seems to be striving. In fact, on songs such as the title track, wherein the musician switches between her lower and upper register, the sudden transition to her higher range can come as quite jarring, especially when the multi-tracked vocals enter at exactly this point, making for a ludicrously incongruous leap in volume levels. These problems could have been mostly, if not entirely, avoided were Harding’s vocals mixed in such a way as to provide more shading and blending between her singing and the backing instrumentation, which would also enhance the dynamic range of many of these songs rather effectively, not to mention the fact that it would arguably heighten the aura of intimacy surrounding the artist’s performances. Ultimately, with Party following the usual production tricks for this style of fragile, pensive indie folk to the letter, these choices simply don’t seem justified given how poorly they accommodate for Harding’s compositional presentation, whilst the songwriter herself seldom provides the definitive melodic tones or original compositional motifs to prevent the overall appearance of the album from coming across as rather unoriginal.
When it comes to the writing and the occasional intriguing instrumental or compositional characteristics incorporated by Harding across these pieces, Party reveals itself to be hinged on its subdued, inward, filmy aesthetic sensibilities much more than any especially strong songwriting fundamentals. It’s far too easy to disregard many singer-songwriters that play to the same territory as Harding as producing “mood music”, and the darker, gothic undertones of the lyrical and sonic expression of Party provide a more intense, yet still subtle, pretence than some of the artist’s contemporaries, but much of the record nevertheless succumbs to many of the superficial qualities that allow the songwriting to suffer in pursuit of capturing a specific ambiance. This is true to the extent that the key points of variation between many of the songs in the tracklisting relate to their timbre and overall mood, as opposed to any pronounced and discernible compositional ideas. The simple piano- and guitar-driven chord progression throughout much of Imagining My Man, for example, would, on its own, leave little to discern the piece from the cuts surrounding it in the tracklisting, especially given Harding’s allusion to the title of the succeeding song, Living the Classics, in the lyrics. Instead, therefore, the most noteworthy feature that allows the song to stand out in any significant fashion is the inclusion of sudden shouts from a choir of children during the chorus. Aside from the fact that the loud mixing of these vocals, once again, makes for some rather grating outbursts, such a quirk simply comes across as an attempt to provide an otherwise rather inconspicuous song with some semblance of a striking hallmark to make it more distinct from the surrounding tracks. After all, with many songs in the tracklisting following a largely unchanged compositional formula, it’s often the instrumentation that gives the listener something to cling onto as a means of distinguishing one song from another. Whilst certain choices in the timbre of a cut are fitting given the context, such as the lumbering, hollow taps of electronic percussion on Blend that bolster the sense of solitude and hardship, other instrumental decisions seem to simply serve the purpose of making up for some scarce points of intrigue in Harding’s composing. I’m So Sorry is a prime example of this, as the arbitrary interjections of backing vocals and saxophone are delivered with no consistency, in such a way as to hinder the fluidity of the song and only highlight the fact that their inclusion seems to be intended to distract the listener from the rather lacklustre songwriting. Whilst the extent to which Party hangs on its nocturnal and contemplative image is understandable, aesthetics are not enough to carry the weight of the entire album, so the points wherein Harding’s compositional capabilities are rather minimal are undoubtedly noticeable and underwhelming as a result.
Although Party is presented in such a way as to put a great deal of emphasis on Harding’s enticing, gothic stylings, the compositions and performances are too scattered to truly resonate with the listener. As a result, much of the record feels like a selection of sonic vignettes that give the audience a mere glimpse of what the artistry of Aldous Harding is all about, with the gaps left by the lacking songwriting impeding on the extent to which the singer can completely convey her musical visions. As such, Party alludes to there being a beguiling artistic identity buried deep within the heart of Harding’s intimate, wispy, sombre approach to folk music, but, unfortunately, the presentation of this persona is too obscured by derivate songwriting and production choices to warrant an appropriately deep level of investment from the listener.
The Vinyl Verdict: 5.5/10