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Harkin - Harkin Music Album Reviews

After a few years as an indie-rock hired gun, the former Sky Larkin singer assumes center stage on her solo debut, chronicling the push-and-pull between blurry days and electric evenings.

For the past few years, Katie Harkin has been busy greasing other people’s wheels. When her old band Sky Larkin called time in 2014 after three albums of charming, lo-fi fuzz, she carved out a new career as a gun for hire, joining Sleater-Kinney, Courtney Barnett, and Kurt Vile on tour and playing on Waxahatchee’s 2017 LP Out in the Storm. That’s half a decade working in the shadows—unlike rowdy children, background players are supposed to be heard but not really seen—which makes the way Harkin finally steps forward on her self-titled debut feel like an extra striding into center stage and bursting into a lengthy soliloquy.
That’s not to say that Harkin’s jagged, whirring indie rock represents some soul-baring confessional years in the making; listening to its vivid yet impressionistic vignettes is more akin to trying to get to know someone by sifting through a jumble of their candid Polaroid snaps. But it does capture a unique tension. Harkin slowly stitched the album together during a period of time split between touring, staying in New York, and hunkering down in the UK’s picturesque Peak District, and she often sounds as if she’s being dragged in different directions across its 10 songs. The geographical references span from her native North of England to Chicago and Missouri, chronicling the push-and-pull between wanderlust and fatigue, restlessness and sluggishness, blurry days and electric evenings. “No coordinates!” she yelps on “Up to Speed,” undercutting the song’s sweet melody with a scuzzy riff that exudes the fuggy confusion of too many late nights, as her nomad’s life spirals into a rut of scuppered plans and crash pads.
Thankfully that second-guessing doesn’t slacken her songwriting, which coats Sky Larkin’s bright, fidgety din with a sleeker, after-dark sheen. Like most people who came of age in sleepy country suburbs, Harkin grew up enraptured by the way quiet days gave way to transformative nights out, and the best cuts here are charged with a similar witching-hour magic. “I know what love is/Love is a nighttime fight,” she croons over the shimmering rush of “Decade,” a gracious reflection on old memories and mistakes made after the sun went down. On “Nothing the Night Can’t Change,” she fizzes with the nervy, stomach-flipping thrill of seeing your crush at the end of a boring day. “Your eyes, they widen at night just like mine,” she sings, high enough on fumes of lust and adventure to shrug off the naysayers insisting it won’t last.

Harkin is most alive when it sprints with that sense of speed and purpose, surging with adrenaline and sparking with twilit excitement. The one or two songs that stumble into a medium-paced chug, such as the choppy, stop-start “Bristling,” lack that same jolt of energy and come off pedestrian in comparison—yet it’s actually only when things really slow down that some of the record’s most beguiling textures emerge. Stella Mozgawa’s splashy drumming underpins whirlpooling guitars and synths on the woozy, Warpaint-ish “Dial It In,” while the fragile strum of “New France” takes on a strangely wispy beauty thanks to its cloudy electronics. “Red Virginia Creeper” shares its name with both an American plant and an Edvard Munch painting, but Harkin twists its shrill whistles and sticky keys into something that instead hums with the eerie, stultifying haze of the English countryside, until it sounds like she’s scoring a pastoral fever dream.

Having an address book as fat as Harkin’s could never be called a hindrance, but it does inevitably magnify any lingering traces of those she’s worked with before, most notably the thrumming urgency of Sleater-Kinney and the playful wordiness of Wild Beasts, who she moonlighted with while still in Sky Larkin. But for the most part, those elements are shaped into something her own. On the twisting, tuneful post-punk of “Mist on Glass,” its guitars racing on a never-ending loop like souped-up slot cars, an awkward spat blows up into a full-blown culture clash. “Does my Calderdale sentiment/Ring out in American ambient?” she asks, worried that her no-nonsense Yorkshire dialect has been lost in translation or, worse still, corrupted by a new environment. On Harkin, at least, there’s no danger of her voice not cutting through.

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