May 8, 2017
Released On March 25, 2016
Released By Stereocure Records
The human ear is a remarkable instrument, capable of taking in complex musical forms and sequences and blending them into a cohesive experience. Ears, and the attendant cortical coils that process the sounds delivered, can also scan through layers of orchestration and multi-tracked recordings to pick elements out, examine them, and then then return them to the fold to rejoin the sound world from which they came. Novelty Daughter, the project of singer-composer Faith Harding, exploits these properties to the fullest, making her album Semigoddess one of the richest musical experiences of our young century.
The sound of Novelty Daughter is the sum, returned with compounded interest, of her training as a jazz singer and pianist combined with her time soaking up the scene at both Low End Theory, the Los Angeles-based hip hop club, and the Berlin underground. The first of these elements, her extravagantly gifted singing, is at the fore of every song on Semigoddess, often with her lead vocal weaving dazzling curlicues around massed backing vocals that are all her. As I wrote after watching her sing live at the release party for the album, her voice is “one of the realest things in music today.” Listen to the wordless vocalise of “Shellbody” as she unravels a long, gorgeous line that seems like it could go on forever.
Harding’s music is also next level, evincing a deep knowledge of disco, Krautrock, intelligent dance music (remember Autechre?), pop, blues, gospel, and jazz. You can hear some of these influences in the DJ mixes she assembles under the name Faychee. Like Goldfrapp, one of Novelty Daughter’s antecedents who just roared back to life with Silver Eye, Harding knows she can push the mechanical-analytical side of her music since it will all be lavished with her glorious voice. Except for brilliantly deployed cello on three songs, all the music on Semigoddess comes out of Harding’s laptop. She assembles melodies and rhythms from a multitude of textures, tones, and beats, applying an obsessive attention to detail to every minute. The opening cut, “Not Fair,” is a great example, with echo-laden drums triggering little clouds of sound, a touch of piano and bass underscoring her voice when it enters. The drums start to fall over themselves about half-way through, just one example of her cut and paste mastery. And so it goes throughout Semigoddess.
Here’s where you come in. Harding is unafraid to put things together in ways that may at first seem out of sync or dissonant, like sounds from two different apartments meeting up in the hallway. But I believe she has put her training and listening into the service of her intuition, allowing her to make leaps between things that may not seem obvious at first. So give your auricular system a chance to do its work, letting the rhythms propel you and the smart lyrics settle in your mind as you listen. Perhaps reading my colleagues below as they relate their own journeys of discovery with Semigoddess will help. If you’re still feeling trepidation, start with “Day Of Inner Fervor,” which has a huge beat that could rock the toughest block, or “I’ll Sing,” an original take on the idea of “hallelujah” and a song which I sang for days after I first heard Novelty Daughter as an opening act for TV Girl. Trust me, it will come together. Isn’t there already enough obvious music in the world?
I think there are two ways to perceive creativity. One (how I choose to perceive it) is to think of it in terms of what you can do within a set of parameters — boundaries even. Tell me what’s allowed, and then I’ll whip up the best version of it while tap-dancing around the laser beams. The other way, which I’m almost positive Novelty Daughter subscribes to, is to view creativity as limitless. It’s kind of like how some sculptors build by addition, while others mold by subtraction. I get the feeling that someone at a label, or in a studio, or backstage at a concert tried to tell Novelty Daughter how their music should sound, and then they went and did everything except that on Semigoddess. The level of genre-bending on this album is just exemplary. Look at “Not Fair.” It’s kind of Sade-ish with its beautiful backing harmonies, but also borrows some well-placed scatting from the great jazz singers of old. “Selves” takes us on a jazzy/trippy ride through a percussion wonderland (I think this is what people think they want Lorde to be?). As a drum programmer myself, I can tell you that there was some serious work put in to this track. Oh, so this is kind of a jazz/trip-hop/fusion thing, right? Nope. Then they hit us with the early ’90s club homage “Day Of Inner Fervor.” My favorite track would have to be “Shellbody.” The vocals and synth chords are absolutely moving. I can’t help but imagine how regal this song would have sounded if it were recorded in the 1950s, with a full orchestra and booming percussion. And there’s my big mistake — telling Novelty Daughter how their music should sound.
Semigoddess is an album that continuously threw my expectations out the window. Immediately, based on the looped drum sample that kicks off “Not Fair,” I thought I knew what kind of ride I was in for but then the vocals and piano came in ten seconds later and caught me off guard. I was hesitant to throw around any definitive genres so early, though I got the distinct impression that it was going to be an electronic singer-songwriter affair. I knew what I was getting into now. Then the bass intro of the album’s second track, “Selves,” started, took those new expectations of mine, and tossed them out the window as well. The electronic elements were still there, but the song also had a bit of a smooth jazz feel. By the third song, I understood that I didn’t have to guess what was going to happen — I just had to listen and enjoy the experience. Semigoddess isn’t the type of album that needs to be bogged down by any specific terminology. It’s dance music that can be listened to with headphones while sitting on a couch (“Day Of Inner Fervor“). It’s introspective music that can be played at a party and no one would blink an eye (“I’ll Sing“). It’s relaxing music that that can also be listened to on repeat into the wee hours of the night (“Got To Learn“). Most importantly, however, is that while it’s all of these things, it never feels like it contradicts itself — Novelty Daughter may have an identity composed of a mish-mash of genres, but they know exactly who they are. To end on an anecdote: Right after my first listen of Semigoddess, I looked up more about Novelty Daughter. To my surprise, they happened to be playing a show at a nearby venue the very next night (to be fair, I live in Brooklyn so the idea that Novelty Daughter, a Brooklyn-based act, would play shows in Brooklyn is not surprising — the timing of it all, however, was a funny coincidence). If music like this can throw so many curveballs at me in recorded form, I felt like I needed to see what it might do to me in a live setting. I ended up not going, because it was also my brother’s birthday and we already had plans to go out for dinner, but I did spend a few minutes considering going instead. (And in case anyone thinks less of me for potentially going to a show instead of spending time with my brother on his birthday, just know that either way I had already bought tickets to take him to see Guardians Of The Galaxy, Vol. 2 just a few days later.)
Why do we spend so much time boxing music into genres and complicated comparisons? Why can’t we just enjoy it for what it is? The first time I listened to “Not Fair,” the first song on Novelty Daughter’s Semigoddess, I thought, “Oh I get it. This is like a jazzy Sade over beats. Cool.” When the second song, the lovely “Selves,” came on, I thought, “Nevermind, this girl actually thinks she is the lost member of Lucius.” It took me several more songs before I had to tell myself to fucking stop it. I was spending so much energy searching for comparisons that I didn’t enjoy anything. Once I relaxed, I found more to enjoy about Semigoddess. For one, Faith Harding’s voice is mesmerizing. She can easily go between fast-paced dance queen and self-harmonizing and beautiful vocal play. Each song has so much going on below the surface, which I heard even more when I put on my headphones. Harding has built every layer of sound in such an interesting manner, whether it’s wood blocks, a raygun-ish jolt, or how “I’ll Sing” pulses between my ears. I think female artists don’t often get the credit they deserve for songwriting and producing, but Harding is clearly extremely talented and creative. It’s a bit nutty to think about how much else I’m missing when I make snap judgements — there are so many artists I’ve grown to love after spending more than ten seconds with them. If you check out Novelty Daughter (and you absolutely should), listen to at least three songs to get the breadth of her work, and clear your mind while doing so.
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
Deciding to hit play before going to, at the very least, educate myself on the base genre of Novelty Daughter (known off stage as Faith Harding), was a just and right decision. Since this is Jeremy’s pick and not mine, I can’t say, “Go on, start the music before you read any further. I’ll wait,” because he’s likely explained already. Nevertheless, this is that kind of discovery experience. It’s a pairing of characteristic laden genres that one would think have all the chance in the world of clashing, conflicting, and fighting with one another for space but, once the music starts, instead, listeners are left wondering how this sort of thing didn’t appear before them before: Jazz and electronica. Harding, who’s based in the musically mixed borough that is Brooklyn, doesn’t bring the free flowing, fluid, and flexible stylization of jazz, together with the multi-toned but very defined movement of electronic beats, for any kind of reasoning that would involve mindless dart throwing that just “making it work somehow.” Semigoddess treats this paring like it’s a jewel that’s somehow eluded one’s vision in an otherwise busy image (think, Where’s Waldo?) wherein it’s fit together all along and been there in plain sight but still seems foreign even after it’s been spotted. An electronic drum loop that demands your attention with a stark snare hit on beat two in opener “Not Fair” is supported by long, airy, synthesizer tones for a good 11 seconds before Harding’s voices kicks in and in that time I presumed I was in for a low impact, electronic stint, like something out of Ghostly International’s catalog. Harding’s controlled but absolutely graceful tone of singing voice immediately raises and eyebrow but even from that first minute, with a similar vocal register and appreciation for a simple but well executed and well mic’ed bass line (“Selves“), it didn’t take long to start imagining a collaboration with the likes of Esperanza Spalding. A cavalcade of tonal textures are abound from the electronic half of Semigoddess: echo, flange, frequency filtering, delay, 808’s — a mixing engineer’s dream. Harding uses the symphony of this electronic arsenal like a lyric-less dance partner. She complements the nature of the sounds that structure each song — whether long sustained, sharp attack, highly pitched and gentle or wide and low in tone — and sings melodies that glide alongside. Occasionally however, and with not the most warning, she momentarily deviates to dance with short but vastly contrasting aspect of a melody, perhaps a handful of spontaneously appearing beats, to create just a bit of disjointed tension and show her vocal contribution isn’t simply set to paralleling cruise control. Topping such interweaving with her own layered vocal harmonization (“The Occupation“) and this is the peak of where the complex ceiling of jazz and the myriad of possibilities afforded by electronic music are demonstrating the most synchronicity. For the shock of how unusual but perfectly matched the pieces of Semigoddess are, we can only hope that Harding’s applications and creativity don’t become viewed as a template for cheap copying because it’s clear this album was deliberately and artfully constructed and such approach can’t be carbon copied — at least not to nearly the same impressive effect.
Full of curious & anomalous moments and sequences, much like the music itself.
“Life is weird without you here” — that phrase has been running through my head for days now. Semigoddess closer “Weird Life” fades out with those words on repeat, and the same thing keeps happening: I’ll go about whatever I was doing without realizing the album has ended because my brain keeps singing “Life is weird without you here” to itself. Weirdly apropos, no? It’s truth, I don’t think it’s just a happy coincidence — these songs really worm their way into your consciousness. With apologies to Conor Oberst, the word that keeps coming to mind when I think about the sound and approach Faith Harding achieves as Novelty Daughter is “rumination.” It feels like she grabs ahold of an idea and keeps chewing on it until the marrow that gives the idea life has been fully absorbed. The example that really jumps out for me is “Shellbody,” in which the nature and consequences of catcalling are laid bare. Harding first describes an incident, moves on to a conversation with a third party about the incident, then digs into a single idea conveyed by that third party — the notion that she should feel flattered. “You have to feel human to feel flattered.” It’s a declaration that’s made more powerful by the deliberate steps taken before it’s issued, like a meal cooked low and slow. You can hear the same multi-step process applied to religion in “I’ll Sing.” This — plus a nimble voice and inventive beats — is what the pursuit of meaning sounds like.
“You think that I’m a particular way, but is that all you see?” questions Faith Harding of Novelty Daughter on opening track “Not Fair,” and then sings to prove, as if there was any doubt to erase. Maybe it’s just a feeling, “maybe I’m thinking too much of it,” Harding sings on the single, “Shellbody.” I like where she’s going with this — it cuts with surprising softness, and the cadence of her vocal style, a jazz-based soliloquy set to electronic beats that stops in fits and starts is like a deftly-weaved mosaic of double-dutch. She is the master of her own style, singing through her feelings with lyrics to help set her voice free. Every winding trail, another bread-crumb left to help her find the full emotional ownership of who she is. On “Got To Learn,” Harding sings through these struggles, “What if my whole world is not open, what if my whole life is not pretty…” Who does she want to be? Who do we want to be? On the final track, “Weird Life,” she laments like a lost lover, “I wake up holding, I wake up holding myself,” is she longing for a past life, a past home, or a past lover? The mental mysteriousness of which you will need to listen to Semigoddess to unravel for yourself.
Novelty Daughter finds a way to replace the mundane with something more regal and enchanted. Semigoddess is just the first step to what could lead to a long hard road out of the overdone tenures of pop music and giving it some fresh blood. I haven’t heard a “pop” record this diverse in, well, I can’t quite remember the last time. That’s a good thing. I would hardly even call Semigoddess a pop record because that would be doing a disservice to what the album actually is and “pop” is a vague overgeneralization. Novelty Daughter can boast influences of dance, jazz, world music, ambient, and R&B. This can be heard on tracks like “Day Of Inner Fervor” and “Selves” both of which I recommend that everyone listen to in the shower in the morning. I promise you, it will change the whole course of your day. Another particularly special track is “The Occupation” which is dark, menacing, and absolutely beautiful. “Love-Hate Letter” swings and shatters on itself with such fervor and it’s relatable as relatable gets. What struck me the most about this release were the sheer acrobatics of singer Faith Harding’s voice. Her delivery and control is admirable and her grasp on tone is impeccable. From start to finish, I was in the clutches of this album, and I didn’t want to leave. Don’t jump into Semigoddess thinking about all the things wrong with pop music — Novelty Daughter is doing something very right.
Unique. Intriguing. Captivating. Novelty Daughter is not just another practitioner of a standard mainstream genre you’ve heard many times before. Instead, this minimalist, rhythmically-driven music stands in a category that is thinly populated at best. One might group Tuneyards (I’m not looking up the weird capitalization pattern) in based on vocal phrasing and similar song construction. It might also make sense to cite fka Twigs as a similar practitioner of mostly-ambient music in which vocals receive the majority of the attention. However, expecting to hear a similar sound to either of these artists will still throw you for a loop when you actually check out Novelty Daughter’s Semigoddess LP, which is really pretty far from even the closest reference points. Programmed beats fill the majority of the space behind frontwoman/sole member Faith Harding’s massive voice, with the remaining sounds mainly consisting of ambient synthesized hums. “Selves” features what sounds like a treated acoustic guitar, and there are a few other moments of instrumental variation here, but considering that the main point of all this is creating sound beds for Harding’s voice, it’s no surprise that embellishment upon the songs’ sparse musical framework is rare. As for that enormously powerful voice, it romps all over your brain, sometimes in multiple layers, and embeds complex yet impossible to forget melodies firmly into your consciousness. It creates such an all-encompassing and satisfying musical environment that you may find it impossible to follow with anything else in your collection. That’s all right — just play it again.
The juxtaposition of the vocals with the music was the thing that caught my ear the quickest. It’s such a delightfully odd pairing. If I didn’t have a pretty good idea that all the elements of this album were created in 2016 (or thereabouts), I would bet that this album was a sound experiment, joining vocals from a ’40s era vocalist who might have been peers with Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday with instrumental tracks from the ’80s that had been found in a box in the basement of a defunct movie or video game company. It’s a jarring effect that I just love. I tend to listen to these albums late at night and these songs make me feel like I’m living a David Lynch movie, in the very best way.
It’s so exhilarating to listen to an artist for the first time who sounds so unlike anything else in the current musical landscape, arriving on their debut album seemingly fully-formed and making a statement that’s impossible to ignore. Bands like Sleigh Bells, The xx, and Purity Ring have accomplished this in the recent past, and now Novelty Daughter has done the same with her fantastic debut full-length album Semigoddess. A heady mix of pop, jazz, electronic, trip-hop, beats and melodies, acoustic and electronic, the album is a font overflowing with unexpected choices and wonderful surprises. This melange is apparent right from the opening track, “Not Fair,” whose looped beat reads more R&B/hip-hop until Faith Harding’s beautiful songbird-like vocals come lilting over the mix, sending the song into a new space that’s utterly enchanting. Track 2, “Selves,” is built upon a bouncy string bass riff, clearly more jazz-influenced, that eventually settles into a light, joyous groove assisted by piano and glockenspiel. And then tracks 3 and 4, “I’ll Sing” and fantastic lead single “Day Of Inner Fervor” are set off by synth riffs that are much more modern yet feel right at home, even as we bounce back and forth between these disparate influences at the heart of Novelty Daughter. It’s thanks to Faith Harding’s stunning vocal performances and expert hand at arranging that Semigoddess comes together so seamlessly. Take a listen, and Semigoddess will whisk you away to its newfound sound.
Semigoddess is a great case study in modern pop music. I’ve always found that phrase so strange. Not that I hate pop music — anyone who claims they do is lying to themselves — but it’s just weird to see so many bands label their own work pop when it’s so far removed. Every day, there’s some new post-punk band claiming their new record, full of sparse, tense guitars and laconic vocals, is a new pop direction, or there’s another rock deity claiming that all rock music is inherently pop, from Metallica down to Frank Zappa. To me, these people are idiots. Sure, you can say that your work is inspired by pop (Pixies’ Doolittle) or pop by comparison (Mars Volta’s Octahedron), but come on — it’s not pop. I have the same thoughts running through my head as Semigoddess perpetually shines during a half-hour listen. For every polished production technique, there’s a glitch or spastic background around the corner (“Weird Life“). For every catchy lyric and memorably vocal part, there are the abstract thoughts (“Day Of Inner Fervor“) and the Diva Plavalaguna moments (“The Occupation“). The only pop quality not truly off-balanced here is the dance aspect, but you could argue the second track definitively states this is not a dance record. For everything you could point at and say “that’s pop,” there are anywhere from three to ten other things going on that are anti-pop. Most of this comes from the absurd, yet impeccable combination of styles she executes, but it also seems by design too. Call it abstract pop if you will, but you may as well be calling it a dark light or a silenced sound — fundamentally sound, but logically fallible. Still, there’s truth in it. Faith Harding seems unwilling to make a choice between the pop and avant-garde, borrowing from each when the moment suits here and bending one to the other to get across a surprisingly coherent sound. And that’s what makes this such a great case study. It’s so clearly not pop music… but yet it is, and that just gives weight to all these musicians claiming their loud dissonance or sparse ambience is just pop in the end. I’m still not ready to concede that “Tame” is a pop song… but I’m getting close.
Long Arms To Hold You by Long Arms
Chosen By Andrew Cothern