Harper rocks out with Relentless7 on 'White Lies for Dark Times'
By JOSHUA LIEBERSON
STATIC and FEEDBACK correspondent
Perhaps the greatest paradox of the past decade of Ben Harper music is the immediate comparisons he draws. The initial excitement on a new album will bring you to draw comparisons to many legends past with little hesitation. 2003's Diamonds On the Inside brought images of Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Gaye, while 2006's Both Sides of the Gun reminded some of the Black Crowes, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
However, this jack of all trades may have been master of none. The instant satisfaction gave way to the reality that Ben Harper was everyone except, well, Ben Harper. The true magic that drew so many fans by word of mouth in the 1990s was his unique ability to craft his own sound from some sort of divine folk/rock/blues inspiration that jumped out of your speakers while simultaneously having a complex and thoughtful arrangement. While his last decade has certainly brought some dynamic songs and sounds, Ben Harper seemed to lose a part of himself in the process.
In that context, Harper has taken almost to starting over. The Innocent Criminals were placed to the side to make room for a new band — Relentless7, a Texas-based trio who got Harper’s attention through a demo played for him by guitarist Jason Mozersky. The demo impressed Ben Harper enough to call Mozersky in to lay down guitar parts for "Please Don't Talk About Murder While I'm Eating" on Both Sides of the Gun, and the full band together for "Serve Your Soul,” an eight minute epic to close out that same album.
The energy that's exudes on White Lies For Dark Times is nothing short of stunning. In fact, the greater surprise on a general first listen is that it's not so much Harper’s new band, as much as it is just a new band. Period. Sure, Harper is still the star of the show, but part of the beauty of this album is that it's not solely his. Each band member contributes to this recording in a way that makes it a Relentless7 album, and not a Ben Harper and [insert backing band] effort. This makes the atrocious album cover that much harder to swallow — this is Ben Harper and Relentless7 as much as the World Series champs are Ryan Howard and the Phillies.
The album opens with an old fashioned stomper, "Number With No Name." The interplay of layered southern blues rock riffs between Harper and Mozersky plays well, competing for attention while blending into a singular purpose. Then, on Jordan Richardson's mark, Harper's unmistakable weissenborn slide takes over and brings the track to a solid finish. The next track is only odd in its placement on the album. While the third track, "Shimmer and Shine,” would have blended perfectly from "Number With No Name,” they chose "Up To You Now" to follow. While this track would seem to fit better later on, it still stands strong on its own two feet. A mid-tempo song that feeds off primarily Jesse Ingall's bass and Richardson's drum work, it plays out as the opening track’s polar opposite.
It is not until the third track and first single, "Shimmer and Shine,” that all four members meet together for a pure rock n' roll breakdown. The song moves along in a fashion that reminds this listener of "Burn to Shine,” from Harper's fourth album. It's unapologetic rock n' roll swagger that plays just as well before a youthful and naive audience as it could from a picky rock n' roll junkie.
However, the first track to take this album to the next level is "Lay There and Hate Me,” where not only do all the members shine individually, but where the new band first truly defines their sound as completely new and fresh. Sure, in parts it sounds very Rolling Stones, but behind the riff is a bass line that is unique but intoxicatingly catchy.
The centerpiece of this album comes with "Fly One Time,” a track that soars over a fantastic bass drum beat. The song builds in a way that is at once influenced by Pearl Jam's "Given to Fly” but remains firmly in this band's control. Lyrically, the song tackles the experience of seeing the end of a period of one's life, where one is conflicted between what you know, and future's endless possibilities. And looking down from a distance, the sense is one of a powerful hopefulness.
The band returns to a more complex feel on "The Word Suicide,” layering Harper's swirling weissenborn with sharp strumming from Mozersky. The back and forth between Mozersky's sharpness and Harper's fuzz in many ways highlights the group mentality of this album. Everyone shines, and everyone is involved. Meanwhile, Ben's songwriting is not lost in the sea of sounds. His touch, particularly on this track, is still the strongest presence. The album closes out on what is perhaps its only pure ballad, "Faithfully Remain,” which combines Harper’s early lyricism with an updated sound. It’s well constructed, but it’s disappointing due to the fact that it feels like it’s better suited on a traditional Ben Harper album, not so much on this one. It would have fit perfectly on 2007's Lifeline, but this is not 2007, and this is not just Ben Harper.
Nevertheless, this album is sonically compelling from start to finish. Throw away the comparisons and forget about the past decade, this is Harper's strongest release in a dozen years, in great part because he's stopped sounding like others, and has restarted the project of finding his place, with more than a little help from his new friends.