Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Harper Lee "All Things Can Be Mended" (Matinee Recordings)

There was a time when I would write a Harper Lee review and people would read it. Not many, obviously, but hey. It was a wonderful sensation knowing that I could communicate something I cared about and that "the reader" (glib impersonality ahoy!) might even be prompted to investigate the record and fall in love with it - not as completely as me, for sure, but enough to add a new name to their list of favourite bands to trip off the tongue next time they were asked for their flavours of the month. Now, of course, I can be much more selfish when I hear a new Harper Lee record. I can enjoy it, not having to worry about how to describe that just-so guitar sound, or having to bother elucidating on the wispy sprawls of synth which wrap Keris Howard's words in a blanket of minor chords, or worry about whether I should buck the trend of every other review and complete it without mentioning the word "maudlin". Ook, too late.

The New Record by Harper Lee starts in delightfully perverse manner with "Everybody leaves", which is definitely one of the highlights, not least with Keris' vocal being a little quicker and higher pitched, recalling the early joys of "Next summer", as guitars nervously clang, the drum machine flitters about in the manner of past top pop hit "So you said" and keyboard strings cascade around it. "Left-handed", on the other hand, swirls in keys and acoustic guitars amongst the tugging likes of "I'm really not sure I've the fight...", percussion intruding where it dares, a little fill-in sucking us into a gorgeous plucked final instrumental, with clashing epic drums at the end. These two stunning openers are then followed by perhaps my favourite song here, "I don't need to know about your wonderful life" - this time, the guitars and drums are tight, picked, clear, like those on every great past tune from "Killjoy" to "This better life". And atop it all, words that will choke you.

"I love you... since when has that not been enough ?"


"Let me know" is a little more mechanical, though grandly ensconced in more fake strings, but how about this for a classic Harper Lee lyric, so cutely sung - "I won't find anyone else, let's not kid ourselves. Not that anyone cares..." And while I don't want to compare Keris to Eamon, at least any more than necessary, he blatantly then sings "Let me go, ho". Whatever the lyric sheet says. It is some compensation for the lack of the cussing we have otherwise come to expect from Harper Lee records. Incidentally, I still think the lyric sheet is a shame - I don't know why - but as with Trembling Blue Stars' "Alive To Every Smile", it just seems to detract from the beauty and the mystery. As it would had Sarah or Factory records - two of the key components of Harper Lee's sound - wrapped their output in mere words. As if mere words could do justice to music this... just right. Especially the soaring instrumental finish. And we're only four tracks in.

"Stupid" has a more Hal-like feel, with the sequencer doing a good impression of extremely fey acid house behind yet another wondrous if desperately sad lyrical construct ("Maybe there's September... maybe there's just aching") and even finishes with some "ba-ba-ba's", of the type we've heard little since Brighter's Sarah debut, "Inside out". The guitar is a bit "Darklands", but there is sequencer and low-in-the-mix jangling as well as a singalong chorus, kind of Harper Lee at their most Richard Marx-ish (don't worry, this is not very, it just reminds me of "Right here waiting", which says a lot more about my need for psychological reappraisal than HL's musical influences). The press release suggested elements of "electronica" in this album, presumably thinking of the serviceable drumbeat that flits in and out of "Stupid", but although Harper Lee can make even barren solitude seditiously danceable, frankly it would have been more accurate to describe Slayer's "Reign in Blood" as containing elements of reggae.

The second half kicks off with "Autumn", which originally appeared on a Matinee sampler. Soundwise it seems more akin to the previous album than the rest of this one, which may not be surprising given that its cold, New Order-ish beats and groovalicious bassline motif are suspiciously like those of the mighty "City Station". Which was also, unsurprisingly, ace. Oddly, though, the lyrics betray real hope inamidst the coming cold - "I've dreamt of days as good as these..." - whereas in "City Station", set a little later, in a London December, Keris could only feel "...like my soul is waving goodbye to me". "Autumn" also reminds me of the Windmills' "Summer snow" a little: again, this can be nothing other than good. And nearly two-thirds of it is an extended instrumental passage of no little melodic delight that eventually fades into...

"Isn't this where we came in ?" is one of the most lyrically accomplished tracks - again, the vocals are delivered quickly, as if the protagonist thinks he can make his situation sound more upbeat by hitching them to the relative pace of the backing track. Although having dropped an octave during the 1990s, Keris can still sometimes sound oh-so-young, even if the memories remain the currency of the lyrics: "I remember how you had your hair, the clothes you wore, the drink we shared, like it was today..." then "we've wasted time on idle dreams, our half-lived lives, and stupid schemes..." You could cut the atmosphere like a knife. For some reason, after a slightly odd trumpet-sound solo, the closing keyboard really grates on your ears, but until then it is genius."This is the sound which a heart makes when it's breaking", on the other hand, is bleak but sparkling, fragile and beautiful as Dartington crystal, not changing in tempo or feel throughout, but it could not be more aptly named. You can almost imagine that the song was originally an instrumental and a listener observed what it sounded like. It's Brighter's "Frostbite" recalled in the twenty-first century, although like that song it could do with the oomph that would have been engendered in its last third had someone picked up the pace on the percussion.

"Everything's going to be OK" provides another twist, the rather-late title track to the previous album, introduced with strange miaowing guitar effects, as whimsical as Harper Lee every get. Again, there is an optimism in the lyrics, although "Think it's going to turn out nice" almost suggests it's all tongue-in-cheek.But the optimism, of course, if it is real, has all been built up in order to be snatched away at the end with the self-explanatory "There is a light in me that's gone". Again, like "This is the sound...", it settles early into a single pace and just keeps going until the tears and the self-doubt have been able to assemble fully. There is even a faintly discernible backing vocal from Laura (I do worry that I go on about Keris Howard too much when praising Harper Lee: after all, it can hardly be coincidence for someone to have been, however fleetingly, in Hood, Boyracer and Harper Lee, three of the greatest bands of the post-c86 era, as well as Kicker, one of the more decent bands of the last few years. I have tried to redress this imbalance by, alongside my "Keris Howard" MD compilation of Hal, Brighter and Harper Lee tunes, putting together a "Laura Bridge" comp. It's got Kicker, Harper Lee, at least one Boyracer early tune off "B-sides and Besides" and a couple of those very early Hood tunes when they had lots of drummers. Hopefully she's on those. She is in my world anyway). The song works best when, late on (this time we're recollecting yet another Brighter tune, "Maybe") the drum machine does what it should have done two tracks earlier, kicking in harder and dragging the album off into a slow, aching fade.

And the rumours, then. Is this Harper Lee's last ever album ? True, it it has that "epitaph" feel, although so many of Keris' records have had. And if their light really has gone out, it is hard to begrudge them after three albums of preaching mainly to the converted and failing to turn the heads of the unititiated. If perhaps their fight has just gone, there is something inherently romantic about providing such pleasure to comparatively few people and then stopping before hope turns properly to despair. And this New Record by Harper Lee (remember, such a thing is an Event in my life) seems to be getting better even on repeated repeated repeated listens. Rather like Wiley's "Treddin On Thin Ice", which also frames avenues of snowy introspection.

On the other hand, this is still not a perfect album. It is yet another great piece of work, at least as solid as its predecessor (both of which in retrospect tower a little over their patchier first record). Harper Lee do, however, definitely have a perfect album in them. If they were to make another record, perhaps that would be it. Or perhaps they will leave things as they are, and in 30 years time someone will rediscover this great underrated band and put together a little compilation of treasures like "Train not stopping", "Dry land" and "I don't want to know about your wonderful life", not to mention Keris' previous triumphs like "Killjoy", "Hope springs eternal" and "Election day", and only then will it dawn on civilisation exactly what they were missing now.

And I would still fight - to the death - anyone who claimed to be a bigger Harper Lee fan than me. Because they would be lying and threatening my integrity and my fantasy and my self-image and there would be blood on the car park before long. Harper Lee are all about that certain sadness, that uncertain smile, that other bands just can't communicate. I earnestly implore you to buy all their records.

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