Ben Harper has proven to be a talented musician over and over again. He has appeared in concert with such legends as Willie Nelson and Eric Clapton, recorded stellar albums (especially noteworthy is Live From Mars from 2001), and he has brought the lap steel guitar and Dobro into the modern rock scene without losing track of the heritage that comes with them. His band, The Innocent Criminals, specializes in establishing groove. Whether it is a country blues train beat or a hard rocking Led Zeppelin cover, this band remains tight, inventive, and always rises to the occasion. On this new album another talent of Harper’s brings the band and the man together-songwriting-which is the key element on Lifeline and it is strong. Harper’s influences are easily seen in this album, all the way from Berry Gordy to Tom Petty. Through predominantly acoustic arrangements and honest vocals, these songs speak loud and clear.
The album starts off with the mid tempo, straight ahead rock tune “Fight Outta You,” featuring a hook so well-constructed that it is reminiscent of a 1970s Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers single. Perhaps the hook, mixed with an actual message in the lyrics, makes the nostalgia ring true. Track two, “In the Colors,” echoes Bill Withers’ gospel infused soul sound while a two and four guitar chunk shows Harper’s Motown influence.
The next two tracks are filled with piano and gospel influences. They differ in that “Fool for a Lonesome Train” has folk elements while “Needed You Tonight” vacillates between the overdrive and harmonic surprises of a hard rock band and a 12/8 soulful groove. The heavy acoustic strumming and piano fills on the fifth track recall another ’70s icon, Cat Stevens, while the wispy vocals, airy harmonies, and textural guitar solo on “Having Wings” definitely create some imagery.
The album continues with more Bill Withers-laced soul on “Say You Will.” Particularly nice on this track is the use of Conga drums. “Younger than Today” sounds as though Harper may have been listening to street musicians from the UK or even U2 or Coldplay. The truth in the singing keeps it within the general feel of the album. “Put it on Me” is the one mostly electric song on the album and features a funky ’70s groove – not as deep as Sly Stone or Rufus, but something more like the Doobie Brothers. On this track the listener also gets to hear Harper play his lap steel like the late Duane Allman, with blues inflections and a heavy, vibrant tone (in concert this is a specialty of his). “Heart of Matters” is a mostly straight-ahead rocker with a shuffle feel.
The truest beauty of the album comes on the last two tracks. “Paris Sunrise #7” is an acoustic instrumental that features a free time modal foray, similar to the opening of an Indian raga. This piece is performed with a slide on Harper’s Dobro and sounds much like another slide player, Derek Trucks. When the piece concludes it bleeds into the title track, “Lifeline.” This closing track is a simple, upbeat waltz that features Harper’s emotionally raw vocals expressing his heartfelt lyrics. For this listener these last two tracks were the highlight of the album.
Lifeline is available in three versions. When purchasing the standard CD the eleven tracks mentioned above are what you get. The two disc deluxe enhanced edition includes a DVD with live versions of all of the songs on the album. At iTunes the album comes with four bonus tracks: live versions of “Lifeline,” “Fool for a Lonesome Train,” and “Needed You Tonight.” The other bonus track is an extended medley of “Paris Sunrise #7” and “Lifeline.” Anyone that enjoys honest and pure songwriting with tight grooves from real instruments will enjoy Lifeline.
Posted by Ben Rice