“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
— Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
“I’d love to write stuff as complicated and clever as Radiohead, but I’m too dumb.”
— Keris Howard, Dagger Magazine (2001)
Keris Howard isn’t giving himself enough credit. As lead singer and guitarist for the indie-pop Harper Lee, he’s certainly as down in the dumps as Thom Yorke and friends, but he’s not nearly as pretentious which only works to his advantage on his band’s second release, Everything’s Going to be OK. In fact, it’s the album’s straightforward, honest and uncomplicated style that gives it its edge.
Forming in Brighton in 1999, Howard and collaborator, Laura Bridge (guitar, drums, and keys) named their band after reclusive author, Harper Lee. Howard has stated that Lee’s enduring popularity based on her one and only book, To Kill a Mockingbird, fascinated him so much he was driven to invent the band for the same purpose — to release one great piece of work and then disappear, never to be heard from again.
While the band found minor success with the song, “Dry Land”, it wasn’t exactly the major smash that would have made such an act impressive. So Harper Lee — the band — continues to make music.
Everything’s Going to be OK is a worthy successor to 2001’s Go Back to Bed improving on the first album due to an obvious development in melody construction and songwriting. Howard is no stranger to building great songs having written for Sarah Records’ Brighter back in the early ’90s. His technique is a simple one — to create depressing mood that acts as a calming agent, relating sad, down-on-his-luck stories backed by piercing guitars and sultry bass lines.
Take the album’s most remarkable and recognizable track, “Train Not Stopping”, for example. The song, about a mundane walk home from work with every possible obstacle getting in the way, is essentially an ode to being alone, to making mistakes and tripping up. Howard’s maudlin delivery of the song’s absorbing, poetic lyrics — “Tell me what I’ve done / Am I quite that bad, no really / Be brutal won’t you / Hurt me if you need to” — is so devastatingly pure that he tends to blend into the soft piano vibrations behind him, causing is voice to suddenly become just another instrument.
This purity shows up again and again on OK. Bridge’s contributing instrumentation and Howard’s own guitar work refuse to get in the way of the stories being told. The music, sumptuous and multi-layered, works to create much-needed tension during the darker, apologetic tales and serenity during those more meditative moments.
Dark, for Howard, involves coming down extremely hard on himself and his surroundings, as in “Miserable Town”, or just himself, as in “Unreciprocated”. Howard’s songwriting talent shines through on both these tracks as he opens himself up so much as to reveal just how vulnerable he is when in his own company, let alone someone else’s. “Settle down in a miserable town / Tell myself I’m on the top of the world”, he sings on “Miserable Town” making it clear just how deep into fantasy he can will himself in order to feel useful. The same kind of tragic self-delusion shows up on “Unreciprocated” with Howard daydreaming about a former love and how much she “won’t be thinking about [him]”.
There are so many more moments like this on the album. It’s all so sad, but in a rather striking way. Howard’s music exudes simplicity. He makes sure to place himself in instantly recognizable situations (as the dejected lover on “The Thought of You and Him” or the paranoid optimist on “This Better Life”) so that his words easily resonate, and his openness is particularly charming.
Howard needn’t bother himself with connections to the likes of Radiohead, as — demonstrated by this gorgeous record — his talent is strong enough to stand on its own.