Ben Harper
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Welcome To The Cruel World , 7/10
Fight For Your Mind , 5/10
The Will To Live , 6/10
Burn To Shine , 5/10
Diamonds on the Inside , 5/10
Both Sides Of The Gun (2006), 5/10
Lifeline (2007), 5/10
White Lies for Dark Times (2009), 5.5/10
Give Till It's Gone (2011), 4.5/10

(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

Ben Harper, raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles, obsessed since childhood with Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley, is actually an eclectic African-American folksinger who started playing old-fashioned blues in old-fashioned coffehouses and making himself a reputation for his style at the bottleneck guitar.

Discovered by Taj Mahal, and after a stint in the Chicago blues scene, Harper released Welcome To The Cruel World (Virgin, 1994), a monumental exercise in stylistic excursions. The instrumental The Three Of Us opens the album on a nostalgic note, as if to signal a journey through the past of the American nation. Equally skilled at blues, soul, rock, funk, and country, Harper effortlessly pens warm vignettes of ordinary lives. He cries Whipping Boy in a smooth voice halfway between falsetto and mournful, and plays the guitar in a hiccupping style that leaves some notes floating in the air for surreal seconds. He intones the singalong Like A King in a tone reminiscent of old slave songs, while the drums beat a voodoo-like rhythm. A cello lulls the tender meditation of Pleasure And Pain, while the guitar "sings" a heartbreaking melody in the style of Leonard Cohen.
The album runs the gamut from pensive (the calm soul-blues Don't Take That Attitude, the subdued lullaby Waiting For An Angel) to festive (the Caribbean Breaking Down, the cajun-tinged Mama's Got A Girlfriend Now), compromising between extremes in the uplifting and almost anthemic How Many Miles Must We March.

Compared with that much musical proficiency, Fight For Your Mind (Virgin, 1995) was a disappointment. As far as folsinger fare goes, the sprighty soul of Gold To Me is probably the standout track. But Harper is more than a folksinger. Alas, only the lush Power Of The Gospel, the guitar-organ duet of By My Side and the majestic, Hendrix-ian, 11-minute God Fearing Man show the rest of his skills.

The Will To Live (Virgin, 1997) restored some of the debut's charisma with at least three gems: the mellow grunge ballad Faded (with a fantastic entr'acte of solo blues guitar), the spirited blues shuffle Homeless Child (straight from the Delta, propelled by jumping bottleneck phrases and swinging gospel beat), and the gospel hymn I Want To Be Ready, In these songs that are both full of pathos and carefully arranged, Harper achieved a powerful balance between the poet (venting the blues) and the musician (playing the blues). The Will To Live repeats Faded without the same genius, although with the same nonchalance, loud-then-soft dynamics and guitar gusto. Elsewhere, Harper shows a senile tendency towards pathetic reggae sermons (Jah Work) and solemn ballads (I Shall Not Walk Alone). The tender horn-tinged mexican waltz Ashes and the humble folk song Roses From My Friends capture his adult sensibility in a vein worthy of Cat Stevens (with a tad of Tracy Chapman and Prince), and the thoughtful dirge of Widow Of A Living Man seems to come out of Donovan's Fairy Tales: if senile has to be, these low-key songs do a much better job of painting him as a wise and sorrowful old man. Last but not least, the album showcases Harper's virtuoso guitar style at a mature stage (last but not least, in the instrumental Number Three).

Burn To Shine (Virgin, 1999) is his worst album and the definitive surrender to radio-friendly soul (Suzie Blue, Show Me A Little Shame).

Diamonds on the Inside (Virgin, 2003) displays what Harper does best: Bob Marley imitations (With My Own Two Hands, the album's stand-out), Lenny Kravitz imitations (Temporary Remedy, So High So Low, Touch from Your Lust), Bob Dylan imitations (When It's Good). Unfortunately, what he does best is not particularly relevant in the musical world. The African-ized gospel hymn Picture of Jesus is the one moment when Harper tries to be relevant.

There Will Be A Light (Virgin, 2004) is a collaboration with the gospel group Blind Boys of Alabama.

The double-CD Both Sides Of The Gun (2006), which is as long as a regular CD, is divided into a rock disc and a bluesy disc. The first disc is a hodgepodge of ethnic flavors (Better Way), funny jokes (Please Don't Talk About Murder While I'm Eating) and elegant routine (Serve Your Soul). The second disc is pensive and ponderous, a style that hardly fits with Harper's natural gifts.

Lifeline (2007) offers more of Harper's impeccable routine, occasionally lively and entertaining (Fight Outta You, Needed You Tonight, Say You Will), but virtually no passion.

White Lies for Dark Times (Virgin, 2009), a collaboration with the Texas-based backing band Relentless7, delivered eleven originals that run the gamut from robust blues-rock (Number With No Name) to boogie (Why Must You Always Dress In Black), from Cat Stevens-ian lament (Skin Thin) to Free-style syncopated hard-rock (Keep It Together), from solemn U2-style meditation (Up to You Now) to the lively and melodic Shimmer & Shine (the album's most immediate moment). The feverish rigmarole of Boots Like These leverages a tribal beat and an acid guitar. Not only does the album lack imagination: it also flirts with soul balladry (Lay There and Hate Me and Faithfully Remain).

Give Till It's Gone (2011) boasts a couple of serious rockers (Clearly Severely and Rock N' Roll Is Free) but in general the songs fail to connect and the instrumental Get There from Here steals the show.

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