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Auteurs of the Transfixing: Strange Harvest’s Arresting Second Album

Strange Harvest
In A Replica City

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On the off chance you’ve wondered what Nancy & Lee would sound like had they emerged in digitally-glazed 2013 rather than suede-and-denim 1968, Strange Harvest, on their new album Inside A Replica City, have provided the perfect portal.

Should a more recent comparison be required, try this: The Kills without the (sometimes overdone) teeth-baring ferocity, strummed at times on a night porch with the mysteries humming just outside the perimeter light. Though stripped-back, the album is anything but sparse, bringing to mind another contemporaneous – and perhaps closer – corollary, the Handsome Family, albeit one more attuned to the intuitive minimalism of Young Marble Giants than to the gothic country-folk of old weird America.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t anything spectral on the plate here. Organs murmur and lurch with sinister winks, there’s a hollow-eyed harpsichord tapping out a skeletal melody (on the disquieting – and stunning – anti-celebrity screed “Replica City”), spooks inhabit the synthesizer charts. Ghosts in the machine indeed.

Auteurs of the transfixing, Amber Skye & Justin Walshaw (for it is they) are among the most promising young bands making the rounds of the scene-that-refuses-to-die in Dunedin, New Zealand. What sets them apart is not just the unwavering quality spread across the record – eight tracks all tipping the gem scales equally if differently – but the gleam of maturity. They sound immensely confident, and they make it sound easy.

Vocal-trading opener “Crystals” is beat-catchy, sultry, B-3 drenched and utterly captivating, the ricocheting voices converging into harmony at the end to cap a love song meant to get your attention and succeeding like a siren. From here things get a little darker. “Stream Your Video” has Booker T waking up inside a modernist nightmare, an intimate, claustrophobic – and irresistible – song pulling us straight into the heart of Dystopia where the back-and-forth vocals, the erratic pulsebeat of a drum track and hanging guitar echoes induce a dizzying sense of déjà vu. “Drive,” with its post-punk guitar shards, walking bass and relentless tom-tom, does just that, though possibly to the brink of insanity. “Monsters” brings you “TVOD,” second season (More melody! More explosions!), while “The Well,” complete with those shimmering chords and that synth-in-the-clouds/drums-pounding-the-cave-wall combination providing a beautiful tension over which an invincible vocal hook, would, in a right and just world, bring them fame from every corner.

Vocal’s as cool as Amber Skye’s could border on the dispassionate but throughout this record fall instead into the knowing vulnerable. Think of her as the lost – now found – more powerful Cocteau Triplet, alluring, mostly unflinching, steady with the occasional quiver of fallibility. Justin tends more toward the spoken, to only marginally less effect and the balancing interplay of the two is as much a key to this album’s addictive aesthetic as the swinging, narcotic beats and the cohesive sonic architecture they’re built on.

We go out on the disturbingly hypnotic “Amnesia,” controlled squalls anchored by a parabolic, bobbing bass and the drum machine set on boom boom bap, Amber sounding not a long ways from Opposite Sex’s Lucy Hunter on “Sea Shanty,” a wholly appropriate – if certainly unintended – inference, as In A Replica City rivals the prodigal nature of that band’s debut from 2011, about which it was also said that impressive records by bands this young seldom come this impressive.

Whatever it is humble little Dunedin has – and most of us have given up asking – Strange Harvest have inherited it full-stop. Though self-released (and available here), In A Replica City could easily have come from the old classic Flying Nun label or the newer classic Fishrider. Like the Bats/Chills/Verlaines/Renderers and countless others before them, they fit the mold while slyly breaking it. One for the record books.