Rob Smith Can’t Say No: Elizabeth Harper/Class Actress
I’m a sucker for a good singer/songwriter, and if one happens to be female and pleasing to the eye, well, that’s just so much icing on the proverbial cake (if’n we’re reading the same proverb). So back in January, when Sarah Gupta (a member of the extended Popdose family) suggested I check out Elizabeth Harper for this column, I immediately said yes, absolutely, will do, gotcha, eezee-peezee-Chuck-E.-Cheezy.
Tardiness, though, can be a virtue. In the months that my patient friend’s request has languished in my inbox, Elizabeth Harper’s music has undergone something of a radical transformation, one that has taken her from mere singer/songwriter chick-with-guitar to something completely different.
In 2005, Harper released her self-titled debut record (at least, I think she titled it herself; it’s her name on it) and, with her band the Matinee, embarked on a grueling road to nowhere here in the US, playing clubs, bars, garages, parking lots, Great Space Coaster conventions, schools for the deaf, and other places where making an impression was nearly impossible. What made it doubly difficult to get the record properly promoted in this country was the fact that it practically didn’t exist in this country—there was no domestic release, aside from iTunes and possibly Harper’s merch table.
She fared better in the UK, though, where people could actually purchase her work, and where positive notices in NME and Q got her opening slots for acts like Johnny Marr and the Long Blondes. Japan came around, as well; tracks from Elizabeth Harper made their way onto playlists at some of the larger radio stations in the country.
The album itself is an up-and-down affair, marked by Harper’s rather elastic voice. While several write-ups on her described her as a softer Chrissie Hynde, she reminds me more of the mid-Nineties alt-rock chanteuses, like Tanya Donnelly, Harriet Wheeler, or Nina Persson. She moves up into falsetto and back down again into normal alto range effortlessly, as on “Charles Bridge” and “Trouble in the Palace.” “Low Tide” definitely carries that Sundays vibe—same guitar tones, same production values—while “Rock like a Baby” features an almost atmospheric, underwater guitar sound I dig.
“Rock like a Baby” is also a bit frustrating. “I could’ve hurt you,” she sings, “But I didn’t get that far / If this is the future of love / I’m throwing in my car.” At least I think she says “car.” I’m not entirely sure. If it is “car,” it makes no sense; if it’s not “car,” I’m equally disappointed, cuz I can’t make out the words, and I really want to know what she’s throwing in. Whatever she’s saying, it sounds like she’s in pain—the good kind, the kind that makes us voyeuristic listeners nod our heads in sympathy or empathy or approval. There’s a definite Velvet Underground influence here; Harper is kinda like Nico on helium (not cuz Harper’s voice is too high, but cuz Nico’s voice was like a Donatella Versace 45 played at 33 1/3).
Harper could have faded away after that single five-year-old record, but like Billy Batson summoning the combined powers of the gods, she has remade herself into something better, bigger, and stronger. With her new trio, Class Actress, Harper is wrapping her lovely voice around blip-blip Eighties-style electronic pop, and proving it to be a surprisingly savvy maneuver. The band’s debut EP, Journal of Ardency, was released in February, and is well worth a place on your next playlist.
The record starts slowly, with “Careful What You Say,” and from its first notes, you know this ain’t the same Harper. Unfortunately, those first notes sound like cheesy sub-Casiotone notes and a cheap drum machine. The cold backdrop lacks any kind of edge, and it seems at odds with Harper’s voice.
The title track, however, is something entirely different. Here, an actual groove emerges from the electronics. I can imagine playing this really loud somewhere people are dancing, like a nightclub or a wedding reception (the closest I get to nightclubs anymore). The difference between this and “Careful What You Say” is the presence of something resembling a bass. Bottom end is so important when your goal is to get bottoms moving.
The band goes the poppy route with “Let Me Take You Out,” three minutes of perfection that recalls the Cure or the Smiths in its late-Eighties vibe. Likewise, “Adolescent Heart” is one of those songs you’re absolutely positive you’ve heard before—maybe it’s in the “Let me, let me, let me” refrain, or the lush echo that cushions her voice as it floats on a cloud of synth chords.
Class Actress sets Elizabeth Harper in a setting that both incorporates her voice and contrasts it perfectly. Think of a record like Everything But The Girl’s Walking Wounded, which surrounded Tracey Thorn’s silken delivery with club beats and ambient electronics. Harper sounds nothing like Thorn, but the effect within Journal of Ardency is similar. The record holds your attention and makes Harper (and her cohorts) once again an artist to watch.
Thanks to Sarah for her suggestion. Keep those ideas comin’.
Harper has, over the years, taken part in several compilations, among them the following:
Elizabeth Harper and the Matinee: “Pictures of You” from Cure tribute album Just Like Heaven.
The Commons (featuring Elizabeth Harper): “Here Comes Your Man” from Pixies tribute album Dig for Fire.