If Aldous Harding was to enter the World Gurning Championship then she’d be sure to win.
The New Zealand musician pouts. She rolls her eyes. She bares her teeth. So viscerally does she enact the emotions of her songs that in an earlier age people would think she was
The loves and anxieties that flit across her face contrast with the stillness at the heart of her strongest material.
Her recently released third album Designer may feature richer arrangements than previously, tapping into the gently strummed folk of Laurel Canyon, but when she performs sinister torch song ‘Damn’ it’s like no one else is on stage.
The relative warmth of the newer material is teased out by the presence of a four-piece band, which allows for an expanded tonal variety. This means she can move between the swinging,
almost conventional pop feel of ‘The Barrel’, to the Neil Young-ish ‘Zoo Eyes’, and the folk mainstream of her encore of Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Right Down The Line’.
The tracks nonetheless retain a spectral, gothic quality as a result of her unique pronunciation,with vowels being rolled around her mouth like faintly distasteful foreign objects. She spits
these out with an eerie, childish delivery on the smoky ‘Weight Of The Planets’ while on ‘Pilot’ - which she performs on solo keyboard - she has the deep detachment of Nico.
This role playing creates an intensity that’s not even broken by the long, tense pauses between songs. During these she readjusts her seat, moves slowly between keyboard and
guitar, and makes awkward non sequiturs (“my mum says I play guitar like my dad…”) that reveal even less about her inner world than her cryptic lyrics.
Yet there remains a sense that, as a performer, she’s toying with the audience. This tips into silent comedy on the unreleased ‘Old Peel’, on which she percussively hits a cup with the studied focus of someone doing brain surgery.
It’s at odds with its musical playfulness, which recalls Cate Le Bon, and suggests a further loosening up of her compositions while losing none of her captivating singularity.