Slow All Over, the debut album from eclectic musician Brian Harding’s new project Blond Ambition, is a laser-focused work filled with danceable moments of percussive, head-nodding rhythmic bombast paired with catchy synth- and guitar-laden hooks, deliberate and slow-burning pace, and subtly emotive melody. Despite its considerate influence from the broad and open-minded style of world-beat, the album is complete in its vision and scope, a tight and sexy affair fully realized by Harding and created almost entirely in his new home of Los Angeles. But to reach this peak, he needed to leave parts of his past behind—not to mention his coast.
Harding, formerly of the acclaimed Brooklyn project Ex Cops, left the bright lights of NYC for the serene woods of upstate New York after the release of the project’s sophomore release “Daggers.” He made some musical headway there, writing new material and recording demos in a cottage in the woods of Tivoli. But while standing in an LAX terminal in early 2016 to catch his flight home after finishing the final Ex Cops tour, Harding decided to change his surroundings.
“I got off the tour in LA and didn’t get back on the plane,” says Harding. “Literally at the airport I decided I wasn’t going back.”
No stranger to Los Angeles and its many stages, having played the hallowed Hollywood Bowl as a guitarist with Daniel Johnston’s band, Harding landed (or Ubered, rather) on his feet, staying with friends in LA until finding a place of his own.
“I’m much happier now,” he says. “Los Angeles gives me city and country. Also I write more when I don’t have to wear a jacket everywhere.”
There he connected with his friend and producer Andrew Miller, the former guitarist for Dum Dum Girls who he had met while their bands toured together, and recorded what Harding calls “fun stuff” and “mostly hip-hop tracks.” From there, recognizing their chemistry but each sticking to their roles as songwriter or producer, the pair began work on some demos of Harding’s material. Taking inspiration from the “attitude influence” of Madonna, the new solo project, christened Blond Ambition, immediately began to take flight.
“I had a clear vision for what I wanted this project to be aesthetically and sonically,” he says. “My dad used to play trumpet for Ray Charles and I used to be obsessed with The Genius Comes to Town, which is like a very early world-creation album, and I chose to focus on things like Desert Sessions or Channel Orange where it’s a record you’re not just hearing, you’re living in it.”
Blond Ambition takes respectful cues from the early disco/dance/Avant-garde Downtown scene of 1970s and ’80s New York, the pastiche-sampling art rock of bands like World Party and Big Audio Dynamite, and even the Grateful Dead. Harding also cites his stint as a bartender in an NYC nightclub for exposing him to the house and dance scenes that changed the way he looks at making music.
“All of that stuff is very percussive and groove-oriented, but they could write a pop song too—it wasn’t JUST the groove, even though I like that, too.” Harding says. “I lost a lot of interest in guitar rock. It didn’t hit me the way it used to, so I wanted to make a more crystal-clear kind of music. I wanted to permeate the album with lucidity, but you’re still driving through fog.”
That sentiment is clear from the first notes of Slow All Over. The percussive, kitchen sink catchiness of “Shasta” sets the mood early, with Harding crooning over sunny, almost tropical hooks reminiscent of Here My Dear era Marvin Gaye. The fuzzed-out tone and jangly verses of “Houses of Reason” build confidently into a rock-solid piece of songwriting with its assured refrain of “We got everything we needed/It’s a funny way to get there,” and despite the song’s defined structure its “jam” qualities never drift. There’s no template at play here, but the intention remains precise.
Harding played nearly everything you hear on Slow All Over himself—with the exception of lead guitar, which was performed by his childhood friend Jason Roberts—from programmed and sampled beats to bass guitar to various synthesizers, bongos, and shakers. The album was completed in just under six months. “We were learning as we went,” Harding says. “Throw a dart out here and hit a good player. We were very fortunate to be around really good people, musically and wholly.”
The album takes bittersweet U-turns with tracks like “Lights," a delicately tinged nod to Van Morrison and Nico; while the electronic, blipping climb of “F.S.I." takes us on a lo fi cruise through an abandoned Circuit City. And with the narrative content of songs like “Stupid Boy/Girl” and “Confused 4EVR,” it’s clear that Harding is delving into the truly personal for perhaps the first time. “As you’re making the album, you’re changing your life completely and meeting new people and going to different parties and shows. I feel that really informed the sound of the album in a big way,” he says. “I guess I’m also thinking more about what I’m saying and thinking about real life experiences for the first time, rather than surreal elements, and it’s really influencing what I’m writing. Obviously there’s a lot about changing locations and leaving people behind and meeting new people. I just wanna be lucid. Selectively.”
As Harding acknowledges, the process of making a debut album for a new project in just half a year when you’re in a new city across the country from your old home can be a pretty radical experience. With Blond Ambition he has found an outlet to express those feelings in the form of catchy songs, while at the same time holding down a relentless groove.