[30 March 2006]
Ben Harper fans should be happy. He participates in online chats, he tours relentlessly with his band The Innocent Criminals, he increased his visibility with an acoustic contribution to the Curious George soundtrack, and he recently released another album, the wonderfully titled Both Sides of the Gun. Gun, as I like to call it, is a two-disc set marketed as a “single album in two parts”. One side features a blend of funk, classic rock, and blues. The other side offers a somber mood (“Waiting For You”) and melancholy tone (“Cryin’ Won’t Help You Now”). For audiophiles who still think compact discs offer too much compression, Everloving Records will release the wax edition in May. For the curious and the true collectors, there’s an edition with a third disc composed mainly of acoustic versions of the album’s mainstays.
In terms of length, you might compare Harper’s double disc approach to Prince’s Sign “O” the Times, with the whole unit clocking in at just under 64 minutes. The rock-oriented side, the “Better Way” disc, contributes 33 minutes of the total time. Sign was a longer album, but the idea of splitting a single album into two parts is the similarity.
The brevity of each disc helps and hurts the effort. It hurts because just when you start to hit the groove of a disc, it’s over. But, on the other hand, it helps for two reasons. For one, it reduces the intimidation factor usually associated with multi-disc releases. In that regard, offering the meal in bite-size chunks makes it more appetizing and easier to digest. The other good thing is the length encourages use of the much-neglected “repeat” function.
It’s easy to put these discs on repeat because Harper arranged the songs by musical theme and tempo. His attention to how these songs are grouped together recalls Ani Difranco’s Revelling/Reckoning album, which sounded more like two separate albums that just happened to be sold together. The “Revelling” side mostly contained upbeat numbers; the “Reckoning” side gave us classic Difranco folk.
With Gun, Harper’s “Better Way” disc represents the “revelling” while the “Morning Yearning” disc brings the “reckoning”. Also like Difranco’s double disc, each of Harper’s individual sides could possibly stand alone as separate albums. That is, if all the shipments of Harper’s album were suddenly swept up in a tornado, leaving nothing but one disc instead of two, either disc could work on its own (albeit as an EP). Of course, the title should probably change—maybe some bright A&R guy would say, “What about One Side of the Gun?” Perhaps that would be the same A&R guy who would leak bootlegs of the destroyed disc to the streets, calling it The Other Side of the Gun.
But let’s be honest. If I had to choose between the upbeat “Better Way” side and the somber “Morning Yearning” side (you know, the “if you were stranded on a deserted island” question), I’d take the upbeat “Better Way” disc and let that sweeping tornado have the rest. That doesn’t mean the “Morning Yearning” set isn’t worth listening to. The content is high quality. I actually like the concept of a single album being coordinated and themed according to mood, although it’s an interesting method for a musician as musically educated and eclectic as Harper. It’s just that one side of the gun has more bang than the other.
The “Better Way” disc opens with “Better Way” (and its percussion might make you wonder if Harper borrowed Paul Simon’s African band from the “Call Me Al” days), then it fires a salvo from the title track, shoots into the Katrina-inspired “Black Rain”, and ends on the marvelous guitar work of “Serve Your Soul”. It also contains the hilariously titled but funky track “Please Don’t Talk About Murder While I’m Eating”. It runs the emotional and topical gamut, ranging from optimism to political protest to relationships. Consider the power of Harper’s protest in “Black Rain”:
You left them swimming for their lives
Down in New Orleans
Can’t afford a gallon of gasoline
With your useless degrees and contrary statistics
This government business is straight up sadistic
Pretty strong stuff. Now compare that to the psychology of “The Way You Found Me”:
There’s no rules to lust
Only passion, and it can be so unjust
If we don’t speak, we’ll get along just fine
Don’t ask me how I’m doing
‘Cause I don’t feel like lying
Over the years, Ben Harper has been compared to a number of great musicians. A friend of mine—who is intent on whisking Mr. Harper away to a private ceremony on a secluded island to become “Mrs. Harper”—likens our hero’s sex appeal to that of Marvin Gaye. My sister heard “Morning Yearning” and called him “a male Joni Mitchell”. (She also says he’s “still living in three decades ago”, so perhaps hers isn’t an unbiased opinion.) His attentive interaction with his fans has garnered him a Bruce Springsteen comparison. And, yes, given Harper’s ability to rock, the Lenny Kravitz parallels are inevitable.
However, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone comparing Ben Harper to great vocalists. Quite frankly, he wasn’t blessed with the best set of pipes in the business. While it feels unfair to penalize the brother for the weaknesses of his voice, it has a tendency to impact the delivery of his message. There are times, mostly on the more solemn “Morning Yearning” disc, when you can’t help but feel the songs would be more powerful if only Harper possessed a stronger voice. Songs like “Picture in a Frame” and “Reason to Mourn” are good examples.
Harper more than compensates for this shortcoming, as he always has, with the brilliance of his songwriting, his lyrical content, and his musicianship. Ben Harper is one of the unsung heroes of recent memory, a lyricist and a musical poet who has not been at the forefront of the mainstream, but who has consistently produced thought-provoking and musically diverse material. For that reason alone, this album should occupy a dust-free place in every music lover’s sonic gun collection. While longtime fans will be most excited about this release, it also provides an invitation to those who are unfamiliar with his music to join the club.