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Album Review

As it's played out on his recordings, the very gift that has been such a boon to Ben Harper has also been his bane: his musical restlessness and the wide range of styles he seems to employ. It's obvious, and has been since his sophomore offering, Fight for Your Mind, that Harper is not only a master guitarist but a fine songwriter and a great showman. He's been under the sway of legends like Marley, Hendrix, Dylan, Redding, and to a lesser extent, Havens. On his recordings he's wrapped them all up together continually, creating an identity forged on that diversity. That said, as a result, the albums have often suffered. In a live context that shape-shifting mélange can be — and more often than not is — seamless and utterly exciting. In the studio it doesn't gel so easily. His last studio record, Both Sides of the Gun in 2006, attempted a narrower, albeit mellower focus; but he spread it over two discs! The desire to concentrate on a single identity — as a singer/songwriter — resulted in a less than optimal, sometimes even boring, result; a single disc would have been more easily swallowed. Perhaps this is why his most satisfying and consistent offering is arguably his collaboration with the Blind Boys of Alabama on There Will Be a Light from 2004 — until now.

Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals entered Gang Studio in Paris in November of 2006, immediately after finishing a nine-month world tour that ended with eight weeks in Europe. They loaded in their gear, rehearsed, and recorded directly to analog tape — i.e., without the aid of computers or Pro Tools — and mixed in seven days. The result is a deeply focused, loose, and laid-back record that is musically compelling and deeply soulful, and contains some of Harper's finest songs to date. At this time, the Innocent Criminals are drummer Oliver Charles, percussionist Leon Mobley, Juan Nelson on bass, guitarist Michael Ward, and Jason Yates plays keyboards, with a pair of backing vocalists, Michelle Haynes and Rovleta Fraser. Clocking in at just over 40 minutes, this is a brief record for Harper, but it serves him well. The music is a seamless meld of soulful folk, gospel, countryish rock, and blues. The operative genre here, however, is the rootsy soul that Harper could always sing, and Ward's fills along with the electric Wurlitzer, acoustic pianos, and Hammond B-3 employed by Yates make it all swing, while the steady yet slippery percussion roots the music deeply in the groove, which is mellow but tough.

The proof begins on "Fight Outta You," the album's opening track. Harper's acoustic plays the first couple of bars before the rest of the band kicks in, establishing a country-soul feel. His lyrics are uplifting, full of determination and hope. This is underscored by the next number, "In the Colors," which bleeds Southern soul and a killer reggae bassline bubbling underneath. The theme of hope is right there, propping the first track by underscoring in poetic terms the true, just, and beautiful. "Fool for a Lonesome Train," a backwoods country-rock tune, is maybe the strongest cut on the set; its high lonesome sound is borne out not just in the grain of Harper's vocal but by the band's unobtrusive yet utterly engaging support. The lyrics are there; they have the wild and restless in them but it takes a group effort to make restraint an art, underscoring the blood and sinew in Harper's words. That's not to say there are no "rockers" on the set. "Needed You Tonight" comes right out of the shouting gospel and electric blues with electric guitars blazing; it alternates its dynamic between that vibe and sweet soul. "Having Wings" is a gorgeous follow-up, with acoustic piano and electric guitars flowing under Harper's voice.

"Say You Will" is a seriously uptempo gospel shouter, but far more carnal. It's an ass-shaker with smoking piano and percussion work and lots of breakbeats tossed in by Charles; that backing chorus takes it out of Sunday morning and places it in the heart of Saturday night. "Put It on Me" is more of a guitar take on the same kind of music. With the chorus and those six-strings all edgy and loose, it's funky, dirty, and gets very close to nasty. "Heart of Matters" gets back to back-porch soul before giving way to a Weissenborn guitar solo on "Paris Sunrise #7," before closing with the lone acoustic guitar and vocal ballad on the title cut. The set could have gone out on one of the more uptempo tunes after the instrumental, but it's a small complaint in this mix. Whether or not you prefer the rowdier version of Harper and his band, it is inarguable that this recording is a concentrated effort coming down on the side of a couple of musical notions that weave together artfully and meaningfully. This is a very informal-sounding record, and one that feels comfortable in showing its unvarnished side, its seams. And given that it was recorded completely in analog, fans would be well advised to pick up vinyl copies as well and compare the two; the prediction is most likely the vinyl sounds fuller and warmer.

Customer Reviews

Soulfully beautiful

I love Ben Harper and this is a great album. 2nd album that I got from him.

Like panning for gold

Reviewing a Ben Harper album is exactly like panning for gold. You have to sift through all the silt of his throwaways to get to the nuggets of gold hidden within. With Ben you either have good (some great) songs or bad songs. It's clear black and white between the two groups. There's not much room for grey. Which is ironic seeing as how the cover art is in grey scale.

This album is thematically more stable than most of his work. There's less wild swings in mood and genre. The result is an album with more keepers than he typically averages. There's some good folk and summery songs on here. This is one of his few albums rated as high as 4 stars.

I can't stop comparing him to Jack Johnson. It's like I want him to be a Jack clone. When he delivers breezy and summery songs in the vein of Jack, I am at my peak of being a Harper fan.

Ben at his best also reminds me of Amos Lee when he is also at the top of his work and there are a few songs on here that remind me a lot of my favorite Lee tunes.

This album still suffers from many of his typically annoying traits. The lyrics are just weird sometimes. This has been something ongoing since his first album. It's like he just hits spells of really shaky and weird writing. And he still repeats himself too much. Once you notice how he perseverates the title or main phrase, you can't unhear it and you just want it to stop. You just find yourself begging him to sing other lyrics.

He also still does hit the religious themes too hard as well. He took a great song in Having Wings and steered it towards celestial themes and just knocked it down by two stars. Before i realized he was singing about angels I was prepared to give it 5 stars, but had to give it 3 stars because i just don't get down with listening to religious stuff. It's clearly written for people who subscribe to what he does at the exclusion of listeners like me. I just can't generalize it. Still, this is the only religious song in his catalog, and there are many, that I have kept.

Lastly, the album ends in a coma. It just gets so slow and boring. What started out as a great, and possibly 5 star, album, just lays down and dies. Once again, Ben can't seem to keep his attention for a whole album.

A Perfect Album

In brief: there are no filler tracks. Every song is expertly crafted, and if memory serves, this was recorded in an old school manner; all instruments and the vocalist at once, just making it all the more impressive. Paris Sunrise #7 is a favorite, but is better appreciated when you reach the song after having gone through the odd number that come before it. If you like Ben Harper, this won't disappoint. If you're not sure, this is a great place to start.


Born: October 28, 1969 in Claremont, CA

Genre: Rock

Years Active: '90s, '00s, '10s

Combining funky, groove-laden soul with handcrafted acoustic folk-rock, Ben Harper enjoyed cult status during the course of the '90s before gaining wider attention toward the decade's end. As a young artist, he drew his influences from classic singer/songwriters, blues revivalists, guitar slingers, and jam bands like Blues Traveler and Phish, which meant he was embraced by critics and college kids alike. Despite finding commercial success with the radio single "Steal My Kisses" in 2000, Harper continued...
Full Bio
Lifeline, Ben Harper
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