Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Review: Ben Harper and Relentless7 - White Lies for Dark Times (* * * 1/2)

I have a somewhat conflicted love for Ben Harper, and I doubt I'm the only one. Harper has almost limitless appeal, with his soulful blues-rock style, serious musical chops, and sincere delivery, but for the last seven years or so, he's been frustratingly inconsistent. There was Diamonds on the Inside, a diverse and sprawling, but mostly great rock album followed quickly by Harper's acclaimed work with The Blind Boys of Alabama, about which I had mixed feelings. Then came Both Sides of the Gun, a two-disc set that was more filler than fun, and lastly, 2007's Lifeline with the Innocent Criminals, which was a modest success and a fresh approach, but ultimately lacking in energy. None of these albums was particularly bad, but they generally fell short of what Ben Harper had convinced us he was capable of offering.

I remain hooked, though, and right on schedule, Harper returns with his new band for another record, White Lies for Dark Times, eleven tracks of his standard, gritty rock 'n' roll that's a little too familiar, but more compelling than anything Ben has done for some time. Lead single "Shimmer and Shine" was an indication of good things to come, all burning guitar riffs and a signature knock-out chorus that transfers a heavy dose of soul straight into your system. Setting aside both the playful funk and heavy-handed politics of his previous work, Harper finds a nice spot in the middle where he creates some excellent songs. Opener "Number With No Name" is a personal favorite, as is "Why Must You Always Dress In Black," both of which show Harper in his zone, confident, emotional, and taking none of your nonsense while hot guitar licks, groovy bass lines, and fantastic percussion give the songs the necessary kick.

Of course, like any Ben Harper album, there's several seemingly mandatory ballads, which often make or break his records. Here they add to - much more than distract from - the overall feel of things, with the achingly beautiful "Skin Thin" ranking among the album's best tracks. In fact, the balance of the record is about perfect, which may be why I find the whole thing so easy to enjoy. Though White Lies for Dark Times doesn't hold up especially well down the stretch, with the aimless rocker "Keep It Together (So I Can Fall Apart)" and the surprisingly flat "Boots Like These" taking from the momentum, it closes on a high note - the gentle, uplifting "Faithfully Remain." Also, while I stand by my previous statement of Harper's somewhat lacking amount of originality here, he puts together a satisfying and well-executed package that's hard to deny.

Harper sounds focused and inspired, and most of all, relaxed in a way that keeps the music sounding natural even when the material isn't quite as spectacular or interesting as his best work. I'm still waiting for a late-career-defining album from Harper, and I believe he's got it in him, but White Lies for Dark Times is good enough to keep me happy for now.