Ben Harper grew up in California’s Inland Empire, interested in the acoustic guitar and Dobro rather than the harder-edged sounds that influenced many of his contemporaries. Thus, on his debut, Harper expresses his anger with the world — and his desire for a better one — with a mellow mixture of blues and soul. The results are beautiful, sometimes even uplifting, especially on funkier numbers like “Mama’s Got a Girlfriend Now” and “Like a King.” The trouble is that while the former is a playful double entendre worthy of an old blues tune, the latter seriously juxtaposes Kings Rodney and Martin Luther. Harper’s versatility is as impressive as his songwriting, but more grit would help.
Harper doesn’t find that grit on Fight for Your Mind, which is just as mellow. But he does flesh out his songs a bit more — especially rhythmically — and projects the confidence that comes with experience. His soulful, yearning vocals give the album an appealing warmth, even though the lyrics to songs like “Oppression” come across a bit heavy-handed. If Harper sometimes falls short, like the overlong sermonizing in “God Fearing Man,” it’s mostly because he’s so ambitious. When he hunkers down in a more direct style — be it the swamp-bluesy “Ground on Down” or the red-eyed Marleyesque ditty “Burn One Down” — Harper’s wobbly Weissenborn guitar leads and gentle acoustic strumming exceed expectations.
With the invaluable support of bassist Juan Nelson and new drummer Dean Butterworth (a duo the notes dub the Innocent Criminals), Harper cautiously broadens his range on The Will to Live. The folk-blues workouts which still rule the roost are occasionally interrupted — by squally hard-rock guitar (“Faded,” “The Will to Live”), a muted backwoods shuffle (“Homeless Child”) and mood- altering sax and mandolin (“Ashes”). The overall tone is dour yet moving — especially in the lumbering gospel of “I Want to Be Ready” and “I Shall Not Walk Alone” — but it’s fascinating to hear Harper and his band edge closer to jamband indulgence (“Glory & Consequence”) and funk-rock frivolity (“Mama’s Trippin'”) without blinking an eye. (But why is it that Ben lightens up only when singing about his mama?)
Finally recognizing his Innocent Criminals (with added percussionist David Leach) on the cover, Harper ushers in Burn to Shine on a truly despondent note — the downbeat “Alone” — but then mixes it up enough with “The Woman in You” to be credibly tagged a thinking man’s Lenny Kravitz. The pounding metal-blues of the latter song is further explored in “Less” and “Please Bleed,” but reaches full flower in “Forgiven,” as some tempered soul leaks through the torrent. Once again almost overbearingly righteous and leaden, Harper breaks the mold (or at least ignores it for awhile) with honest-to-goodness Dixieland (“Suzie Blue”) and human beat-box powered pop (“Steal My Kisses,” which became his first mainstream hit). With instrumental help from guitarist David Lindley, even the preachiness of “In the Lord’s Arms” goes down smoother, but Burn to Shine is still an awfully big pill.
Harper ventures onward without the Innocent Criminals (although Nelson still provides the bass) on Diamonds on the Inside, and produced himself without longtime associate JP Plunier. The results this time are more diverse, but much of Harper’s personality is lost in the genre-hopping and influence-flaunting. The electro-funk styling of Stevie Wonder drives both “Brown Eyed Blues” and “Bring the Funk,” and West Coast roots-rock makes the title track and “Everything” likable but lightweight. “Blessed to Be a Witness” (on which Harper supplies “church organ” and “thiele tongue drum,” if you can dig that) and “Picture of Jesus” (with perfectly suited backing from Ladysmith Black Mambazo) is straight-up Paul Simon world-beat; “With My Own Two Hands” is just generic reggae. When Harper finds his own voice, as in the reserved bottleneck boogie of “When It’s Good,” Diamonds on the Inside truly shines. Otherwise, that whole “thinking man’s Lenny Kravitz” description becomes the insult it was never meant to be.
The live Ben Harper experience is as close to a religious ceremony as a rock concert gets, but neither the double-disc Live From Mars nor the four-song Live at the Hollywood Bowl truly captures his passion or presence. The Japanese-only So High So Low inexplicably groups the title track with some mundane live cuts and Harper’s rendition of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which originally appeared on the I Am Sam soundtrack. Finally, 3 is a nicely packaged box set of Harper’s first three albums.