March 27, 2006

Ben Harper - Both Sides of the Gun

With 7 brilliant albums under his belt, Ben Harper has been high on my list as one of the most talented, insightful, and most of all soulful artists of our generation. His songs have always had a unique fusion of blues, reggae, gospel, folk, funk, and rock. Ben is an artist that doesn’t let the laws of the music corporation influence his artistic gift. He has made his music the way he wants it his whole career. Though his studio albums are entertaining, they hardly do the man justice. His live performances have always been Harpers strong suit. With his rock/reggae jam style he meets everyone’s expectations that attend his show. Anyone who isn’t familiar with Ben Harper, I strongly recommend listening to “Fight for Your Mind”, “Welcome to the Cruel World”, and “Live From Mars”. His newest release “Both Sides of the Gun” however, is the album on trial here today. With such high standards set by Harpers previous works of art, “Both Sides of the Gun” is going to have enormous shoes to fill. I being a huge Harper fan makes it even harder to give it a fair chance, but I’ll be as honest as possible.

Although the 18 songs could have fit on one disc, Harper broke it up into a double disc on purpose. The first disc is a softer, acoustic disc full of ballads and love songs. An area that Harper isn’t new to, his comforting voice and smooth strumming guitar is what really pushes this half of the gun. It’s hard to explain, but it lacks a certain Harper quality that has been present on his other acoustic songs. What it does show is his passion and focus on his personal feelings which he delivers in a much more delicate way, dedicating an entire cd to his intimate style. Stand-outs include “Morning Yearning” which throws a string quartet into the mix, and “Pictures in a Frame” which is slightly reminiscent to The Cure’s “Pictures of You”.

The Second disc is dedicated to his rock. This is the more Harper-ish side of the gun. A few of these tracks have a Rolling Stones type of rock and roll sound, while some like "Better Way" have a sort of Indian feel to them. Harper has always been one to borrow from other artists, but this album makes it much more blatant than his past work. Usually he adds enough of his own ideas to make the songs more Ben Harper, but this album doesn’t seem to have as much of his creativity and musical attention. There are some great songs on this album. “Serve Your Soul” is the 8 minute folk/blues song that concludes the second disc with a bang. “Please Don’t Talk About Murder While I’m Eating” has a classic Harper slide guitar solo which really hit the spot for me.

As a whole, “Both Sides of the Gun” does have Ben Harper qualities that shouldn’t be ignored. His amazing ability to write socially pointed words to his songs is a major part of this album. The lyrics hit home for Harper and it’s a major reason this album doesnt suck. Another is his less polished sound that was absent from “Diamonds on the Inside”. Ben Harper’s sound is in “Both Sides of the Gun”, you just have to focus a little more than usual to hear it. On a personal scale, it lacks a little of the uniqueness that has made Harper such a favorite in my book. Harper promised this album to be more personal than his other albums, which is why I feel a little disappointed. I can't say this album is great because I know Ben is capable of much more. I will say however that this album is good. It has weak and strong moments but the overall outcome is a success. When it’s all said and done it comes down to one thing. “Both Sides of the Gun” is still Ben Harper. He could’ve done a collaboration with Weird Al Yankovich and Paul Shaffer, and I would’ve been the first one in line saying “Shut up, it’s Ben Harper…it has promise.” If you’re a Harper fan, get it. If you haven’t heard him yet, start with his older work first.

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