Harper Lee - He Holds A Flame EP

matinée 061  /  July 2006
Harper Lee - He Holds A Flame EP
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Harper Lee - He Holds A Flame EP

matinée 061  /  July 2006

Magnificent new EP and the first release in two years from revered Brighton duo Harper Lee. The exquisite title track, presented here in two takes, contrasts trademark Harper Lee melancholy with an upbeat, keyboard-driven tune that recalls the more optimistic moments of lead singer Keris Howard’s former band Brighter. Among the three other exclusive tracks, ‘I Could Be Wrong’ is a perfect slice of Go-Betweens-by-numbers acoustic pop, its jangling guitars the perfect complement to a curiously hopeful message. The moody and churning ‘William Blake’ is a sumptuous textured pop gem that best demonstrates the multi-layered instrumentation characteristic of the band’s acclaimed previous releases, while ‘Come Rest Your Weary Head,’ a chiming lullaby featuring hypnotic percussion and the most plaintive of vocals, ends the EP in sublime fashion. A brilliant EP and very welcome return for Harper Lee! Limited to 1000 copies in custom minijacket sleeve.

  1. He Holds A Flame
  2. I Could Be Wrong
  3. William Blake
  4. He Holds A Flame (longer)
  5. Come Rest Your Weary Head


Slavish devotees of Harper Lee like me always entertain the fear that a new release might pale as against previous efforts. That would, after all, be pretty forgivable. But it never quite happens. "He Holds a Flame" is actually pretty uptempo, even if tightly corralling familiar, controlled layers of misty keyboards and a handful of carefully picked, repeating guitar notes. I think it's about the boy who can't let go. I recognise him as much as anyone, a kid (whatever his age) who thinks that clinging on to long-dashed hopes is somehow romantic, when the reality is simply that he's desperate and not thinking straight. And so, tied up in the trademark Harper Lee melancholy, we have a pathetic, aching paean to the girl who's moved on, a theme not unknown to us avid Harper Lee monitors. The hopelessness of the sentiment doesn't make the song a scintilla less moving: indeed, the "longer" second version of the tune is much the better, simply because you need more time to fully bask in the joyous glow of a new Harper Lee single before it gets laced with the acres of regret hewn by Keris Howard's relentlessly determined and unrequited words. "William Blake" could have been a single in its own right too. It is important to me firstly because, while Joy Division never needed a drum machine, they would have wrung this kind of nervous energy from it, a song that would have sat happily on Harper Lee's imperious second or third albums. It matters to me secondly because principles count, and I think it follows on from their stellar debut 45 "Dry Land" in the images it conjures up of a boy who stuck to those principles, facing out on to the waves that had been crashing against his window right since the days of "Frostbite": while carefully leaving hanging the question of whether he's bitter, or proud, or somehow both. The nursery rhyme quality of the words kinda follows the simple pattern of the chords: and the cascades of picked guitar strings are the sound of the rain battering down throughout, not drip, drip, drip but a torrent of soul searching. single of the year.   --In Love With These Times In Spite Of These Times
There are a handful of record labels where you have the option to buy anything on their roster and be assured of its greatness even if you aren’t familiar with the artist. I always trust the folks at Matinee Records, because they never seem to put out bad records. They know which artists we’ve been waiting to see reissued (see: The Razorcuts); they always find the artists we’ve been waiting to hear (see: Math & Physics Club), and they are especially adept at locating new bands that are fronted by artists who were in bands we used to love (see: Harper Lee). Harper Lee is made up of two people, Keris Howard and Laura Bridge, who used to be in two terrific bands, one of which is still going — Brighter and Hood, respectively, to form an equally exquisite group. If you can recall the airy, pop brilliance of Brighter, which isn’t too difficult because Matinee has made it quite easy for you to find most (if not all) their entire recorded output, matched with some lo-fi electronic orchestration reminiscent of Hood, then you’re close to the formula created here on their wonderful new EP called He Holds A Flame. Their first release in two years, which sports a nice picture of a nighttime carousel, contains five songs that are as wonderfully catchy as anything they’ve done. On the title track, which is presented here in two different takes, Harper Lee air out the chiming guitars and immediately remind me that Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens passed away earlier this year, barely getting a notice between the unfortunate deaths of Arthur Lee and Syd Barrett. Harper Lee, who I’m quite certain are/were well-aware of the Go-Betweens existence, create the kind of lush pop that, more often than not, is a dime-a-dozen these days. But what sets Harper Lee apart from the many throwaway bands is the earnestness of the music and the eloquence of the lyrics. It’s fragile pop for sure, often hinging at a breaking point before being enveloped in a magnificent breath of fresh air. By the time we get to “I Could Be Wrong”, there is such a natural progression that the song almost seems like an extension of the title track. “William Blake”, on the other hand, changes things around quite a bit adding keyboards and giving the listener a little pop with a layer of atmospheric glaze surrounding it.   --Delusions of Adequacy
Another understated classic from Keris Howard and co. I’m so annoyed that the recent Harper Lee compilation was stolen from me, and I apologise for the belated review of this. Anyway, ‘He Holds a Flame’ sees Harper Lee at their most upbeat and lucid, and ‘I Could be Wrong’ is almost happy. God forbid! We’re back to form with ‘William Blake’, which exudes the quintessential Englishness that I’ve come to know and love from Harper Lee. Quite how a band can maintain such a high level of output is beyond me, but the ‘Lee do it effortlessly.   --Tasty
Harper Lee's He Holds a Flame EP continues the group's fine string of heartbreakingly good releases. It maybe even improves a bit on their gentle mix of electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards, programmed drums, and vocal harmonies with a more nuanced and arranged sound. Keris Howard’s lead vocals are exactly the same as they have been since Brighter’s first record way back when, brilliantly sad and sweet. The songs are as strong as ever, with the almost peppy "He Holds a Flame" and "I Could Be Wrong" sounding like indie pop classics. The rest is fine too; "William Blake" is a dramatic near-shoegaze epic and "Come Rest Your Weary Head" is a melancholy slice of indie balladry. Seeing the name Harper Lee on the cover, you know exactly what you are going to get inside. Credit the duo for keeping consistency fresh and interesting.   --All Music Guide
Thanks largely to the Sarah Records legacy, fragile, quiet and reserved pop bands are as common as cretins at a frat party these days. Harper Lee, which features members of Sarah Records' own Brighter, is a reminder that, when it comes to fey bedroom pop, the British are still the masters. The act's melodies are as smooth and gentle as spring rain, and its guitars' warm jangle is the perfect vehicle for somber melodies. Singer/guitarist Keris Howard's restrained delivery's the crowning touches, showing that, even in the day of brokenhearted emos and over-sensitive indie kids, Harper Lee knows the difference between warm melancholy and simpering self-pity.   --Aversion.com (Unsung Heroes 2006 Feature)
Harper Lee is back, folks. Keris Howard and company have had a lot of people fawning over this little EP, and rightly so. It seems only right that a friend and collaborator of Bob Wratten's would carry on the Field Mice/Trembling Blue Stars legacy. And man, He Holds a Flame is such a wonderful, wonderful song. It reminds me a lot of those wonderful bands. Appearing here in two versions (regular and extended), this song should have a place on your upcoming autumn mix CD's for your Myspace crush. The other three songs are good, and they all hold true to Howard's synth and guitar style, but man! It's really hard to beat that title track. It's a weeper sort of and it's very romantic; it's a letter to a woman that the protagonist realizes he cannot have, yet he refuses to burn that bridge. "I know you care for him times ten/But if you ever feel it's through/Remember, I'm still in love with you" is downright sad in its fatal, hopeless optimism. How could any other song on any other record with a song like that even compare? It can't. It's a shame, too, but I had to make myself not listen to those two songs, because I had to move on to the rest of the material. Those other three songs are really nice and are really gorgeous, especially "William Blake." It reminds me, in a strange way, of The Great Gatsby, with Gatsby standing out at night, looking across the harbor and watching the flashing light, calling him and reminding him of the impossible love that is just barely out of his grasps. The lyrics are very forlorn, not unlike that tragic story, and the faint beeping in the song entices you in the same way that flashing green light enticed Gatsby. The other two songs, "I Could Be Wrong" and "Come Rest Your Weary Head," are good, but they do pale slightly underneath the other three songs on the EP. Oh well, that's okay. Oh, and this is one of the best records of 2006, and it makes me wonder how great the next Harper Lee album will be. Essential? Pretty close.   --Mundane Sounds
Simple truths are the most essential to grasp, but critics have a way of letting them slip through their fingers, confusing them for trite, and stomping them to bloody death. Take English duo Harper Lee's namesake: "An ungainsayable endorser of the obvious," a New Yorker scribe sniffed of Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird. As if issues of race were obvious in 1960, a year when Dixiecrat electors took votes from John F. Kennedy because Southern whites deeply believed in "states' rights"-- or now. "I Could Be Wrong" is the kind of gentle indie pop song that might easily be overlooked for lack of impenetrable avant-garde pretensions or fashionable time-signature changes—too obvious, Pitchfork!—but I listen to a lot of gentle indie-pop songs, and few are this effortlessly graceful. Keris Howard and Laura Bridge evoke the smoldering remorse of an erring lover through self-deprecation, acoustic guitars that wave in the wind like a field of wildflowers, and pitter-patter drums, for an aesthetic recalling the Field Mice or Matinée labelmates the Lucksmiths. Howard backs beautifully into his plangent chorus: "I guess that I could be wrong, but I think you will agree/ How things didn't turn out right was really down to me/ I promise I can change." A dreamy electric guitar spells out that heart-in-mouth feeling like skywriting across the arrangement's clear blue, then dissipates just as quickly.   --Pitchfork
At this point - after three fantastic albums of articulate, emotional melancholy-pop, not to mention the genetic legacy of the legendary Sarah Records band Brighter - it's getting redundant to write about how skilled the duo Harper Lee is at crafting songs. That almost goes without saying, it's like saying the earth is round. At the same time, listening to them you never forget it. They constantly impress...with melodies that linger, with beautifully composed moods, and with lyrics that perfectly, and artfully, capture a particular feeling, even a devastatingly sad one. The new He Holds a Flame EP is compelling again in all of these ways...though the tone isn't particularly sad. Or I should say, there's as much longing and wistfulness as ever, but it's more hopeful in tone. Instead of heartbreak being a period, it's more like a question mark, like 'maybe there's still a chance for us'? Keris Howard's opening line on the first song, the title song, is "I feel so good that we're still friends / though I know you care for him times ten." Wow, that's a bold statement, expressing the wish for love even in face of the facts. And that's the outlook of the EP - "Remember I'm still in love with you", as he sings later in that title song, or, as he sings during "I Could Be Wrong" (my vote for most infectious song here), "I promise I can change / I want you back." It's a rose-colored EP filled with romantic notions, but not without a realization of the hurt of life. And what's more, the musical style of the songs fits this tone just right - the melancholy sound they've perfected is still there, but it's also lighter, more hopeful, with keyboards and guitars played gently. The music has a daylight, things-are-getting-better aura that's positively inspiring, even when you can hear the tears starting to fall somewhere in the distance.   --Erasing Clouds
Like a red win carpet stain or Gene Hackman, the indie pop underground never really goes away. Brighton, England’s Harper Lee, the guy/girl duo of Keris Howard and Laura Bridge, keeps mope alive on this five-track EP. Howard’s resigned vocals recall Trembling Blue Stars, and the title track’s Casio-grade drumbeat is harvested from early period Magnetic Fields.   --Magnet Magazine