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Ben Harper & Relentless7

White Lies for Dark Times

(Virgin; US: 5 May 2009; UK: 27 Apr 2009)

Harper's return to rock

For as long as Ben Harper has been in one’s musical conscious, he has almost always been surrounded by his backing band, the Innocent Criminals. Though the group has always been large in both numbers and sound, they have always managed to keep their flare, showcasing moody grooves while splattering exotic, intricate instrumentation throughout any shared performance with Harper.


White the Innocent Criminals have helped the leading artist find his sound, the group has also provided the singer with a fluffy mattress to fall into whenever he’s in need of that 12-minute jam, rippin’ bass guitar solo or delicate touch any musician often times longs for while performing in front of packed venues. In all truthfulness, the Innocent Criminals have become the backbone of Ben Harper and his successful career.


But Harper has seemingly noticed his complacency with the Innocent Criminals, having packed houses together for almost a decade now. These days, he has decided to trade in that comfort and connection for a stripped-down, rockier sound—a sound he has come to perfect with his latest musical compadres, Relentless7, which features his old pal, Jason Mozersky on guitar, along with drummer Jordan Richardson and bassist Jesse Ingalls—on the band’s debut release, White Lies for Dark Times.


Who knows what exactly Harper was looking for while being a part of this record. In fact, who really knows if he was actually looking for anything in particular to begin with. Did he want to make his sound a bit less complex and a bit more edgy? Did he want to simply make that record he and Mozersky talked about for so long? Did he want to take music back to its roots, discovering and displaying an acute form of rock blues that hasn’t been presented in the mainstream for what seems like centuries? Or, of course, did he just want to get a bigger cut of the money?


It shouldn’t really matter because Harper and his new band display an excellent set of Delta-inspired rock tracks on White Lies  that keeps the production true and the songwriting sincere, a seemingly lost combination in such a pitch-corrected world.


“Keep It Together (So I Can Fall Apart)” and “Number With No Name” are two Hendrix-style tracks based entirely on a simplistic guitar riff that manages to extend itself throughout the song without ever letting go of its attack at any point. Harper seems excited to share center stage with Mozersky, a more-than-competent player himself, as both tracks become a fantastic battle of guitar sounds, as prominent or buried as either part may seem.


What truly makes this effort exceptional is the aggressiveness both Harper and his new band display on such songs as “Up to You Now”, “Shimmer And Shine”, “Why Must You Always Dress in Black” and “Boots Like These”. While the first two push forward like an escaped train—and showcase Richardson’s astute rockability, mind you – “Black” and “Boots” both offer up, if nothing else, the blusiest music Harper has ever been a part of. On these two tracks, Harper channels his inner-Delta better than most any other contemporary popular artist could even dream of.


That said, White Lies’s best track comes together when Harper and his bandmates decide to take some time to chill a little. “Lay There & Hate Me” is soulful beyond belief and an utterly perfect break from the power the rest of the record offers so well. It’s simply a spot where the groovy, funky tempo proves to be a magnificent way for Harper to sit back and concentrate more on feeling than command. A break from the loud? Yes. A break from the emotion? Absolutely not.


White Lies for Dark Times is a strong, rocking record that certainly pays homage to a time when rocking mattered more than record sales, and a time when some would say music was at its best. Considering the man behind it once raided radio airwaves with a song called “Steal My Kisses”, one can only wonder what Harper and his latest band will try to do for an encore. If this opening set is any indication, it will be worth the wait to see Ben Harper & Relentless7 make it back to the stage.

Rating:

Colin McGuire is a columnist and a Music Reviews Editor here at PopMatters, as well as an award-winning blogger and copy editor for the Frederick News-Post in Frederick, Maryland. He has worked in newspapers for five years, writing columns, editing stories and trying to make sure the medium doesn't completely fall off the Earth anytime soon. You can follow him on Twitter @colinpadraic.


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