Review: Ben Harper plugs in
October 5, 1999
By David John Farinella
(CNN) -- Ben Harper's fans have become accustomed to seeing the singer-songwriter sitting on a wooden chair while belting out alternative music's alternative. With the release of "Burn To Shine," Harper kicks out the chair, plugs in, revs up and rocks out.
Sure, Harper's strength has been in playing an evocative indefinable style of acoustic music on the lap slide guitar, but he loses nothing by turning to more conventional instrumentation and song structure. After all, what has made Harper a refreshing voice on the musical landscape is the lack of predictability on his previous albums.
While other artists were laying down grungy guitar riffs and bemoaning the weaknesses of their inner beings in the early-to-mid-1990s, Harper turned to the Weissenborn lap slide guitar and lyrically tackled spiritual and political issues. His 1994 debut, "Welcome to the Cruel World," initiated the masses to a new musical frontier. "Fight for Your Mind" (1995) and "The Will To Live" (1997) his subsequent offerings, cemented his reputation as an artist more interested in writing inspiring music than music that would sell.
During a bit of downtime after the tour for "The Will To Live," Harper seems to have discovered that artists who don't grow wither. So, he traded the Weissenborn for a Fender Stratocaster and turned to a more Hendrix-like rock ethic. The new album's "Less" owes something to the Black Crowes; the title track is akin to the Rolling Stones' work in approach and attitude; and "Forgiven" is a ready-to-rock anthem.
Along with the rock numbers comes a pair of mystical folk songs, a sappy pop number ("Steal My Kisses"), a jaunty ragtime tune ("Suzie Blue") and the heart-stopping "Beloved One." The album uses a blend of styles that many artists would never attempt, but Harper and his brilliant band, Innocent Criminals (Juan Nelson on bass, drummer Dean Butterworth and David Leach handling percussion) thrive under the pressure.
Just as Harper has become known for his slide playing and distinctively eerie vocal approach, each of his previous efforts has touched on matters of the spirit. "Burn To Shine" is no different, with "Two Hands of a Prayer" and "In the Lord's Arms" detailing the songwriter's spiritual journey in a way that's neither heavy-handed nor preachy.
Although he's clearly aiming at the rock market, Harper tips his cap to his blues roots (he played for Taj Mahal before striking out on his own) in the jarring "Please Bleed" and the breast-beating "Show Me a Little Shame." Those two numbers may be just enough to make some blues fans want to claim Harper as their own.
But the line is long. And odds are he's not going to settle down anytime soon.
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