Harper Lee was a novelist who wrote the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee is also a band that toes the line between being depressingly somber to seeing that slight glimmer of hope or light at the end of it all. For now we’ll concentrate on the latter Harper Lee. The group, which is the tandem of Keris Howard on lead vocals and Laura Bridge on backing vocals, has that airy, dreamy, lush Brit-style pop trait surrounding them. And unlike some other groups who attempt to be something that they’re not, Harper Lee relish and bask in each song as if they are trying to tweak perfection. It’s a noble gesture on each of these 10 tracks, some of which are worded rather lengthily, giving the impression that Morrissey and the Smiths might have been a few of their influences or posters on their bedroom walls.
The group’s first album since 2002’s Everything’s Going to Be OK starts off with “Everybody Leaves”. Textured without overdoing it and lush without being syrupy, the song’s opening notes have you looking at the album sleeve to see if it’s not in fact the Cure’s Bloodflowers album, especially “Out Of the World” or “The Loudest Sound”. There’s a joyful yet solemn quality to it as Howard’s fragile British lilt makes its way into your bloodstream. The keyboards are very important to Harper Lee, but the percussion cannot be ignored either. “I’m sorry if I scared you off / If my honesty let me down”, he sings as the tune winds around a thoughtful, reflective, and melancholic melody. It’s perfect for walking in an early November snowstorm or on a crisp windy autumnal Sunday. Harper Lee set the bar very high on this starter but thankfully they never fail for the remaining nine songs. “Left-handed” features an acoustic guitar complementing the synth or keyboard-oriented blueprint. Some people might be turned off by going down the same road each time, but Harper Lee can’t be faulted for finding one great tune after another.
One gets the impression that the listeners best suited for these songs are those who’ve just had their hearts broken or, to a lesser extant, still yearn for the opportunity to have a broken heart. “I Don’t Need to Know About Your Wonderful Life” is an up-tempo, atmospheric tune that brings to mind early New Wave groups like O.M.D. Here Howard tends to open or loosen up vocally as the guitars beef up the ethereal, Vangelis-like quality in which the song is wrapped. Another asset is how well it holds up after nearly five minutes with little variation in terms of tone or melody. Harper Lee move into an almost happy state of mind on the gorgeous New Order-ish “Stupid”, which glides above the listener in a sullen but dreamy manner. Here the drums also kick in to create a rockier arrangement. The Cure’s “Plainsong” comes to mind during the aptly titled “Autumn”. Rarely has a title described the tone, theme, and effect of a song. The only downside might be that it seems unfinished at less than three minutes.
The last few songs might not have the same oomph after listening to such well-crafted music, but “This Is the Sound That a Heart Makes When It’s Breaking” should never be ignored or skipped over. If you do, you are a fool! Although most of these songs are dreary and maudlin, this one seems to hit closer to the bone for some reason. The record concludes with “There Is a Light in Me That’s Gone”, which instantly brings to mind the Smiths’ “There is a Light that Never Goes Out”. Harper Lee has made a timeless album that looks at the world as a bit more than half empty. But it’s done in the prettiest way possible.