Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Ben Harper: A Primer

1. Walk Away, Welcome to the Cruel World (1994). Ben Harper is why I hate the Recording Industry Association of America. I was rooming with GN poster Hear No Evil in the dorms when Napster caught fire roundabout ’99-00, and we...well, let’s just say we used Napster a decent amount. My primary use for Napster was “I’ve heard good things about _____, I should check them out.” As a broke college student and burgeoning Music Nerd (which I proudly called myself until my Grammy Diary, when I admitted to liking Justin Timberlake and Mandy Moore, among others), Napster was the greatest invention ever. And my first great Napster discovery was Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals. I downloaded a couple of their tunes, then a couple more, then a couple more, and suddenly I was in complete possession of their first three albums.

The first thing you notice about any one BHIC album is the varied mastery Ben displays. You get your hard rock, your protest rock, your R&B/soul, and your quiet acoustic tunes. Ben Harper is actually relatively unique in how he lets his influences shine through. That results in an occasional song that is a bit too derivative (listen to “Get It Like You Like It” from his latest album and try not to think of every introductory Keith Richards riff, “Satisfaction” in particular), but most of the time it’s worth the risk...especially when the influences are so far-reaching—Stones, Curtis Mayfield, ‘60s hippie folk, gospel, Zeppelin...these influences make for a beyond-dynamic live show as well.

The other thing about Harper’s music is, while every album can stand well on its own, each song that is released seems to fill in a gap in the musical landscape he tries to piece together. Jimmy Buffett released a greatest hits package a while back called Boats, Beaches, Bars & Ballads because almost all of his songs fit into one of those categories. The songs in the Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals catalog fit into musical categories in much the same way, as you’ll see throughout this post. This allows old songs to fit in quite agelessly with newer ones, and vice versa.

(On a side note, Jim Croce’s catalog works much the same way...with almost every song fitting into one of three categories—bad relationships, bad guys, badass women. But I guess that’s another Primer for another time.)

Anyway, one constant of a Ben Harper headlining show is a quiet, acoustic first encore, and even though “Walk Away” is one of his oldest songs, it’s still one of his best. A quiet guitar lick over sad, desperate lyrics, “Walk Away” manages to avoid cheesiness (even with the line, “You put the happi- in my –ness/You put the good times into my fun”), quite the feat, really. Usually the quiet love song is the kryptonite for someone who can rock as hard as Ben Harper can, but he demonstrates strength here.

Plus, “Walk Away” has the added advantage of being the first song I ever sang live in public. So it’s gotta be good, right?

Oh no, here comes that sun again
It’s just another day without you, my friend
And it hurts me to look into the mirror at myself
And it hurts even more to have to be with somebody else
And it’s so hard to do, and so easy to say
But sometimes, sometimes you just have to walk away
From the beginning, Ben has made up for not having a natural, beautiful voice by pouring insane amounts of emotion into his voice. “Walk Away”’s lyrics are poignant but not groundbreaking...the gravelly voice is what makes it sound so profound.

2. Ground On Down, Fight for Your Mind (1995). As a whole, Welcome to the Cruel World was a creative, mature debut album. Fight for Your Mind one-upped it in every way. “Oppression” was a better protest song than anything on Cruel World. “Another Lonely Day” was every bit as good and painful as “Walk Away” in the quiet acoustic category. “Gold to Me” was the perfect vehicle for his voice and guitar skills. “Burn One Down” was a catchy, percussion-laden pro-pot song (“My choice is what I choose to do/And if I’m causin’ no harm, it shouldn’t bother you/Your choice is who you choose to be/And if you’re causin’ no harm, then you’re alright with me”). The trio that ends the album—“Power of the Gospel,” “God Fearing Man,” and “One Road to Freedom”—took the spiritual folk of WTTCW’s “Like a King” and “I’ll Rise” to a different level of soul and exploration.

And “Ground On Down” rocked really hard. Ben’s slide guitar skills are on full display, and this is just a good, solid rock song...probably the song most indicative of where Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals were going with their music in 1995. The progression between Cruel World and Fight for Your Mind was probably the biggest between-albums progression that Ben Harper made. And the album holds up beautifully 12 years later.

3. Glory & Consequence, The Will to Live (1997). This album probably represents the smallest progression. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a fine album with many fine songs—but it’s in no way better than FFYM. However, if you look at Harper’s first three albums as something of a trilogy that represents his musical vision, this album does a good job of filling in some holes. It takes all the different characteristics of Harper’s style in a slightly different direction. “Number Three” is a neat instrumental piece that shows some fine acoustic chops, “I Shall Not Walk Alone” is a gorgeous addition to the ‘religious folk’ songs I mentioned above, “Widow of a Living Man” and “Roses from My Friends” are unique sad songs, “Mama’s Trippin’” is some nice, outrageous funk, “Faded” builds off of territory found in “Ground On Down” (and segued wonderfully into Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” in concert) and “Homeless Child” is an interesting blues take.

But “Glory & Consequence” has been my favorite song on Will to Live since the first time I heard it. It’s a simple song, really...especially compared to a lot of the complexity that’s floating around this album—it’s a simple rock riff with relatively simple lyrics (“I am more afraid of living/Than I am scared to die/I am more afraid of falling/Than I am of flying high/Every moral has a story/Every story has an end/Every battle has its glory/And its consequence”), and it’s just executed perfectly.

The Will to Live is also a unique album in that my four favorite songs (“Widow of a Living Man,” “Glory & Consequence,” “Mama’s Trippin’,” and “I Shall Not Walk Alone”) are the last four on the album. It’s almost as if he knew he could execute those songs well and wanted to draw attention to the more unique songs out of the gates. I don’t know if that was even remotely the intention, but the the album’s track order displays quite a bit of confidence in Harper’s abilities.

4. Steal My Kisses, Burn to Shine (1999). If the first three albums were part of a trilogy, Burn to Shine represented something of a new beginning. The material wasn’t amazingly different than what had come before, but there was just a new feel and freshness to Burn to Shine. The songs just seem to play louder and fuller than those on Will to Live. That’s probably the best way I can say it.

On its face, Burn to Shine’s songs fall roughly into the same categories that had already been defined—the quiet ballads (the all-piano “Beloved One”), the religious folk (“In the Lord’s Arms,” “Two Hands of a Prayer”), the guitar-heavy rock (“Forgiven,” “Burn to Shine”)—but a few songs serve as giant leaps into new territories. “The Woman in You” was easily the furthest journey into soul to date, and “Suzie Blue” takes the old-timey feel in which Harper had dabbled from time to time (“Homeless Child” is a decent example) almost into Squirrel Nut Zippers territory.

However, it’s “Steal My Kisses” that stands out the most. Most likely the most recognizable song in the Ben Harper catalog, you really couldn’t avoid this song in the Summer of 2000. Its popularity, however, shouldn’t take away from the fact that this is a pretty damn catchy song, a nice combo of R&B and rock with a human beat box thrown into the mix. It was the freshest-sounding Ben Harper song (probably still is), and it ranks high on the all-time “You can’t help but smile when you hear it” list, at least for me.

5. The Woman in You, Live from Mars (2001). The hardest pick I had to make on this list was what to choose from disc one of Ben’s long-awaited live album. Go with his segue excellent segue of “Faded” into “Whole Lotta Love”? A great live standby like “Burn One Down” or “Forgiven”? In the end, I went with his aching Curtis Mayfield tribute, “The Woman in You” (and really, how was I not going to post a Curtis Mayfield tribute on this list?). Ben’s vocals go in a strange direction sometimes—he can basically make his singing voice sound like it’s crying, and while it’s not a pretty sound by any means, it’s uniquely effective. No one projects pain and anger like Ben Harper, and “The Woman in You” is one of the best examples of that.

6. Beloved One, Live from Mars (2001). A unique feature of this two-disc live album was that it was one disc of full-band highlights and one disc from Ben’s acoustic encores. The acoustic sets don’t make up a full half of a concert like they do on this album, but this album arrangement is an acknowledgement of the impact these 3-4 songs a night seem to have. While “Beloved One” was good as a solo piano track on Burn to Shine, it seems better and more natural with acoustic guitar instead. The vocals are at the edge of Harper’s range (at least when he’s singing quietly), which gives off a nice sense of vulnerability to go with the sweet lyrics.

Also on this disc was a dead-on, gut-wrenching version of The Verve’s “The Drugs Don’t Work,” but I decided to go with a non-cover for whatever reason.

7. Brown Eyed Blues, Diamonds on the Inside (2003). The four years between Burn to Shine and Diamonds on the Inside was by far the biggest gap between releases for BHIC, but his popularity had continued to grow in that span of time, thanks mostly to the success of “Steal My Kisses,” Live from Mars, and the continuing positive impact of his concerts.

Diamonds continued on the trends of previous albums, dabbling in reggae (“With My Own Two Hands”), hard rock (“Temporary Remedy”), blues rock (“When It’s Good”), soul/funk (“Bring the Funk”), and quiet acoustic (“She’s Only Happy in the Sun”), but to me the best groove on the album comes from “Brown Eyed Blues.” There’s not a lot profound to be said about this one—it just makes you nod your head and serves as a palate-cleanser from the more heavy work that abounds on the album.

I should also mention two other things. First, “Picture of Jesus” includes a beatiful contribution from Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Second, this is probably the most sincere album, from top to bottom, in the BHIC catalog. Sincerity and hope have always been a couple of his stronger traits, but it’s always encouraging when an artist becomes more sincere as time goes on. It usually doesn’t work that way, but age seems to have made Ben Harper more idealistic and proud of his beliefs, and Diamonds is the proof of that.

8. Amen Omen, Live at the Hollywood Bowl (2003). A few months after the release of Diamonds, BHIC’s first live DVD (with accompanying EP) was released, and while the EP was not all that notable, it did feature a staggering version of Diamonds’ “Amen Omen,” a slow-building song that is one of the best at combining all of the different genres in which Ben Harper tends to dip his toes. It slides dynamically between quiet and loud, it adds a religious dabble into a song about lost love, and basically, it hits you really hard.

What started as a whisper
Slowly turned into a scream
Searching for an answer
Where the question is unseen
I don't know where you came from
And i don't know where you've gone
Old friends become old strangers
Between the darkness and the dawn

Amen omen, will I see your face again
Amen omen, can I find the place within
To live my life without you
Like a lot of Harper’s lyrics, this song can mean different things to different people, but while one’s grasp of the meaning might differ, there’s no way to avoid the prevalent emotion for which Harper aims on a given song, and this is a perfect example. You feel pain and yearning, and it comes from the lyrics, the music, the vocal delivery, everything.

9. Satisfied Mind (w/Blind Boys of Alabama), There Will Be a Light (2005). The first thing I thought when I heard that Ben Harper was recording an album with the Blind Boys of Alabama was, “Cool...he’ll get a Grammy out of it for sure.” The Blind Boys are Grammy gold in the gospel categories, and sure enough, There Will Be a Light won Best Gospel Album in 2006. My second thought was, “This is going to be fantastic.” I was right on this account, too. Ben’s natural R&B/rock tendencies (not to mention the fact that he dabbles in religious material on every album) were set up perfectly for gospel harmonies, and songs like “There Will Be a Light,” “Wicked Man,” “Church House Steps,” Diamonds on the Inside’s “Picture of Jesus,” and “Satisfied Mind” worked perfectly. “Satisfied Mind” is a song that has been performed by a large variety of artists, most notably Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley, and Johnny Cash. The lyrics aren’t Ben’s, but they’re worth printing, anyway.

How many times have you heard someone say
"If I had his money I'd do things my way"
But little they know that it's so hard to find
One rich man in ten with a satisfied mind

Once I was waiting in fortune and fame
Everything that I dreamed of to get a start in life's game
Suddenly it happened I lost every dime
But I'm richer by far with a satisfied mind

When my life is over and my time has run out
My friends and my loved ones I'll leave there's no doubt
But one thing is for certain when it comes my time
I'll leave here for certain with a satisfied mind
The wide range of musicians who have performed this song have proven that there are a lot of different ways to sing these three simple verses—Jeff Buckley, for instance, played it “Hallelujah”-style with just his electric guitar and him. Ben Harper & the Blind Boys, give this version a lovely funk/gospel twist with great harmonies, and their adaptation of this standard is probably the best illustration of the tools they were working with while recording this charming album.

10. Better Way, Both Sides of the Gun (2006). As every album seems to pull Ben Harper in different directions, I guess it would make sense that he’d eventually release an album with two distinct discs—one that feels quieter and more hopeful, one that’s louder and angrier. There’s a wealth of strong material here, but it almost hurts the cause to separate the songs by tone. This separation means there isn’t the same “highs and lows” effect to this album, in which you experience a roller coaster of emotion throughout the course of the album. However, in an iPod era where track listing isn’t as important, that works out okay, I guess. Besides, there are plenty of strong additions to the catalog here.

On the quiet disc, “Happy Everafter in Your Eyes” is his sweetest (and cheesiest) love song yet (I believe I read that it was played at his own wedding to Laura Dern), and “Picture in a Frame” aches beautifully. On the louder disc, “Engraved Invitation” gets stuck in my head at least once a week. “Gather ‘Round the Stone” is a strong, bluesy protest song. “Serve Your Soul” belongs in the same ‘slow build’ category as a lot of Harper’s more memorable songs. “Please Don’t Talk About Murder While I’m Eating,” despite having the most unfortunate title in the Ben Harper catalog, rocks. But there are two songs on Both Sides that dwarf the rest: “Black Rain” and “Better Way.”

I mentioned in the Mos Def & Talib Kweli Primer that there were two major protest songs that came out in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina, Mos Def’s “Dollar Day” and Ben Harper’s “Black Rain.” “Black Rain” is featured on this album, and as time goes by, this song does a great job of bringing you back to the emotion you felt in September 2005 and reminding you that this epic government screwup can never be forgotten or forgiven.
Don't you dare speak to us like we work for you
Selling false hope like some new dope we're addicted to
I'm not a desperate man, but these are desperate times at hand
This generation is beyond your command
It won't be long till the people flood the streets
And take you down one and all
A black rain is gonna fall
It’s a brilliant example of the emotional power of music, but I wanted to focus on a different song for the purposes of this Primer. “Better Way” is a giant step forward for Ben Harper. It has a set of idealistic lyrics you’ve come to expect from him, but ths music itself is just gorgeous. Slightly Middle Eastern instrumentation creates a quietly intense vibe while Ben does some of his best singing, ranging from stern but laid back to urgent and loud.

I'm a living sunset, lightning in my bones
Push me to the edge, but my will is stone
I believe in a better way

Fools will be fools, and wise will be wise
I will look this world straight in the eyes
I believe in a better way
While Both Sides of the Gun isn't Ben Harper's best, tightest, most cogent, album, as is his style, the songs open up new areas of exploration and polish off old ones. The influences shine through, but the songs remain unique...not the easiest task to manage.