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.