2007 / Music

Review: Ben Harper’s ‘Lifeline’ Needs Help

Jam-Band Star Releases 10th Album

Ben Harper is an artist who knows what he likes.

Photo: Virgin Records

Photo: Virgin Records

Similar to Sheryl Crow, Dave Matthews or the Black Crowes, the slide-guitar master Harper worships at the altar of classic rock. Harper has followed all the rules and dutifully taken his musical marching orders from the blues-folk-rock amalgam pioneered in the ’60s and then perfected to drugged-out perfection in the ’70s. It’s a faith that has bestowed upon him many perks of celebrity: a loyal following in the jam-band movement, a spot on Hollywood’s B-list because of his marriage to film actress Laura Dern and high-profile chums like Eddie Vedder and Jack Johnson.

But this faith in the music of the Greatest Generation — symptomatic of the Deadhead scene — is also fraught with peril. It stipulates that era-defining musical attributes like Hammond organs, bluesy, Southern motifs and slippery melodies are essential components to every single song.

“Lifeline,” Harper’s new album, buys into this myth of music’s immortality. The album’s title could be interpreted as reference to the value that he places on his dinosaur-rock touchstones. It’s clear though that he has latched onto what he knows works — utilizing the style and arrangements that propelled the Eagles and the Stones — for his own ends. Everyone plagiarizes from their influences, but artists need to put their own spin on it. As his records, particularly “Lifeline,” prove, Harper no longer knows where to draw the line.

Harper is still working with his multi-faceted backing group, the Innocent Criminals, and has followed the trend set by his newer albums by sidelining his trademark snarling Weissborn guitar, except for a few brief appearances. But this record, more than its predecessors, transitions away from groove-oriented material and pursues a course more dedicated to following classic-rock traditionalism rather than using the form as a source for licks to jam off of. Solos are almost nonexistent. Instead of reviving what’s best about this much-honored music, the new disc comes across like Harper has finally reached a creative dead end, straying more than ever from careful student to unconscious plagiarizer. On “Lifeline,” it’s evident that Harper is in need of some help.

The biggest problem with “Lifeline,” and with Harper in general, is that he’s not much of a songwriter. That’s pardonable because many fellow heavyweight instrumentalists, like say Eric Clapton, really aren’t songwriters either. More troubling though is Harper doesn’t seem to realize this failing and, as a result, every new record of his can be viewed as a tribute album.

For every song on which he demonstrates some originality, instrumental flair or ability to deliver a knockdown blow like “Faded” or “Steal My Kisses,” there are so many more tracks where Harper comes across as horribly derivative. Listeners can joylessly guestimate that Harper had Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” on shuffle when he wrote and recorded some of the songs on “Diamonds On The Inside” and he was obviously inspired to inject some preacher’s fire into other cuts from “Burn To Shine” and “Both Sides Of The Gun” thanks to Al Green’s early singles.

“Fight Outta You” is symbolic of Harper’s songwriting struggles. Instrumentally, the track is well executed by Harper and the band, but it’s the song itself that is at the heart of the problem. While there’s a healthy dose of rock-god genuflecting inherent in most of his songs, Harper’s lyrics and melodies are often clumsy and sometimes tenuous as compared to their legendary source material. The lyrics of “Fight Outta You” are conversational and fairly dull. The tune is the rough draft of an anthem, but never really syncs in with any feeling that truly conveys emotional power. The words are naked observations and don’t line up with any kind of inspiring narrative. Sometimes, they barely maintain pace with the rhythm. The track’s music is better but is mismatched. The song expropriates a pleasing Fleetwood Mac “Rumours”-era rhythm and Harper’s deep, seductive voice valiantly sells this half-hearted rallying cry, but the song is just too low intensity, too artless and too passive to really connect with people.

Similarly, “Fool For A Lonesome Train” is your generic weary traveler song. The track is an Allman Brothers-esque country ballad, with some Neil Young harmonica accents, that makes vague lyrical allusions to the archetypical life laid out in the 1920s about blues and folk ramblers. Acoustic guitar chords add a nice bounce to the melody, but the lyrics’ tired story of being on the road (or rails in this instance) and having a love so far away aren’t exactly a new idea. Harper sings the lines with appropriate puppy-dog sadness, but they aren’t delivered with very much conviction, or with an attractive melody, so as to best the dozens of other songs done in this vein. Robert Johnson still does it way better.

Even though Harper demonstrates an embarrassing willingness to rewrite material laid out by the masters — and do so to underwhelming results — his efforts aren’t without their occasional rewards. “Heart Of Matters” is an endearing soul number that is a refreshing change of pace from the melodic wanderings of the record’s other tracks. Ex-Wallflowers guitar player Michael Ward adds some Steve Cropper choppy guitar licks and Harper, boosted by some female soul singers, includes a few Otis Redding-like breakdowns in the song that at least reference the golden era of Stax Records.

Like “Heart Of Matters,” “Younger Than Today” is surprisingly effective even though it too is essentially a rehash. The song is easily the most interesting and entertaining song on “Lifeline.” Based around a haunting piano figure and Harper’s whispery falsetto, the track has an unmistakable John Lennon’s “Across The Universe” feel to it. Again, the lyrics are second-rate, but the melody is so lovely that Harper wisely never strays far from this core melodic idea and so transcends its dubious origins. The piano part is great, but what’s so remarkable about the cut is that in all of the musical mimicry that Harper engages in, he rarely imitates an act that’s as songwriting-focused as the Beatles were.

Listeners can appreciate that on “Lifeline,” Harper sought to change directions a little and leave the jamming behind. It’s abundantly clear that Harper is out of his league and perhaps Harper knew it too. This would explain why he’s leaning even more on his influences to provide direction. It was a strategy that helped him fill out this album, but won’t allow him to join his heroes in rock’s pantheon.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2007 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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