Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google+ Share on Reddit Share on Pinterest Share on Linkedin Share on Tumblr Given the rich history of the Flying Nun roster, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that for the better part of a decade, New Zealand has once again been quietly churning out a surprising number of quality indie-rockers and contemplative singer-songwriters. From Tiny Ruins to Connan Mockasin to Nadia Reid, the tiny island nation has generated interesting, often introverted, musicians plying their idiosyncratic trade. New Zealand singer-songwriter Aldous Harding traffics in a specific type of delicate, skeletal after-hours folk. In 2015, she released a self-titled debut album of quietly affecting beauty built around her spare guitar and hushed, unpolished vocals. It had such startling intimacy that it felt as though you were being let in on a secret shared only between listener and performer. Far from the indie pop that the cover photograph of a baseball cap-wearing singer might indicate, it owed more to Nick Drake than the Bats. For Party, her 4AD debut, Harding fleshes out her skeletal gothic folk songs with minimalist backing and a more polished approach. Part of the appeal of her debut – which, as befitting all great Kiwis, was released on Flying Nun– was the starkness of her compositions and the intimate nature of the performances; it often sounded as though she were singing softly to no one but the listener, hunched over her guitar in the early morning hours of a midwinter day. Because of this, Aldous Harding had a decidedly British folk feel to it, her sighing vocals falling somewhere between Vashti Bunyan and Sandy Denny. “Imagining My Man” finds Harding adopting a deeper vocal affectation that sounds as though the words were trapped in the back of her throat struggling to make their way out. There were hints of affectation throughout her debut, but here they are elevated to a new level. Not unlike early Joanna Newsom (particularly on the title track) or the younger sister of Beach House’s Victoria Legrand (just about everywhere else), Harding’s voice can be a bit of an acquired taste as she chews on each syllable and sings as though through pursed lips. The move to a slightly fuller, more dynamic direction serves her well as “Imagining My Man” gently meanders along before reaching a conclusion in which her wordless vocalizing is accompanied by a pair of lackadaisically droning saxophones. Stylistically, it’s not a 180-degree turn from her debut, but it’s enough of a shift that it feels like an evolutionary step forward. Similarly, “Horizon” builds its arrangement around a contemplative piano chord progression, atop which she pushes her voice to new heights. Still far from anything that would shatter the dark of night, it nonetheless cuts through like a clarion call when viewed in contrast with the voice she relied upon for her debut. “What if Birds Aren’t Singing They’re Screaming” uses a Newsom-esque waltz feel over which she coos the title phrase. It’s a mildly unsettling thought when coupled with the childlike instrumental backing, stark cover image and the biographical description of an intense artist whose “body and face [are] a weapon of theatre.” This sense of theatricality is far more pronounced on Party, with her vocalizing sounding as though it is relying on the whole of her face to produce each and every word. For some it may come off as a bit overly stylized and too affected, but it ultimately shows Harding to be an artist willing to push herself to new and different places while still working within an established framework. Adding elements to her approach, much of the intimacy of her debut is tempered in favor of a less insular work, making the title feel just that more tongue-in-cheek, Harding inviting others to come spend some time in her after-hours world. Party is an impressive follow-up to a fine debut and an easier introduction to Harding’s singular approach to Gothic folk.