Saturday, 9 April 2016
Innocent As Charged.
Answering the call, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals are back for the first time since 2007's 'Lifeline'. Almost a decade later, 'Call It What It Is'. A reunion. A response from a call to action. Or just the album title itself. Since his black and white beautiful 'Lifeline' with those guilty victims, the man who started his career with an album with Tom Freund ('Pleasure and Pain') and has also recorded a spirited L.P. with The Blind Boys Of Alabama ('There Will Be A Light') has increased his classic catalogue of collaborative creations. There was his more rocky group Relentless7 (we are still eager for a follow up to 'White Lies For Dark Times'), his Fistful Of Mercy supergroup with Joel Arthur and Beatle son Dhani Harrison ('As I Call You Down') and even some solo work backed by Ringo Starr himself. Then came a blues Grammy nod for his 'Get Up' with legend Charlie Musselwhite...and the year before last he even recorded an album with his dear mother Ellen Harper, going back to his roots for 'My Childhood Home'. But the man with some seriously stellar solo work ('The Will To Live', 'Fight For Your Mind', 'Diamonds On The Inside' and 'Give 'Till It's Gone' amongst so many others) to go along with his great company has never had it as good as when he charged his sessions up with a couple of convicts. They largely appeared instrumentally on his definitive, double disc, most classic work to date, 'Both Sides Of The Gun' and made their own timeless record with him in 'Burn To Shine'. From the Hollywood Bowl to Mars they also ignited his live shows too. Culminating in scorching sets and even inspired covers of twisted influence from the bones of The Verve's 'The Drugs Don't Work' to a whole new soulful take on Marvin Gaye's 'Sexual Healing' signature. Now welcomed back to a cruel world for Harper's 13th album it's only right the Innocent Criminals are asked back for their day in court for 'Call It'. It is what it is!
Critically guilty of being criminally underrated, the American singer/songwriter still on top of his classic craft and game, second only to Springsteen, heads back down a familiar road with his E Street. But this man born to gun navigates the twists and turns in both his own life and the life of the world that surrounds him, with strokes of a master artist refusing to paint by the numbers of a commercial worlds canvas. Critics are calling the new album from the man that should be platinum "unpredictable"...and it really is from one man and his band who you never saw coming back until their reunion show last year. And even then it almost looked like a one off. But you best believe they're here to stay and welcomed back like the Lebowski rugs they perform on in concert. Together they really tie everything together. You just know things are different when the opening fireball of a track is titled 'When Sex Was Dirty', but you best believe that explicitly Ben isn't aiming for the crass charts, but the hearts exclusively...and nostalgically. The recentley teased 'Pink Balloon' flies like nothing you've heard from these guys before either. Not dropping like lead, but showing that since way back when in the 'Lifeline' days of one floating at the end of a party, Ben and his boys have let nobody take the fight out of them either. Never deflated always invigorated. 'Deeper and Deeper' on the other hand is hallmark criminals classic going back through the crates and bottles to find that lightning the partnership has struck more than twice. It's beautiful. It's evocative. It's love lost haunting lyrics "longing is a ghost/when the one you love the most/no longer has you on their mind" is songwriting at its boldest and best. Just like the loves bounty of 'Bones' that goes further and further beyond the heart and soul to the marrow of what matters in dedication. It's all spelled out from the lyrics of a man who laments as much hope as he does regret. As much introspection as inspiration as he sings, "when the writing's on the wall you better read it/make your bones/when the moment comes/around you gotta seize it".
And the day does he on his latest 11th hour. The stetson wearing Dylan-esque singer/songwriter and his best outfit fashion a classic that won't be denied for a man of many styles, who admits that in this iTunes window shopping age someone looking for one genre might just miss it for another in his wide work. I mean this is the same guy that wrote 'Morning Yearning' and 'Dirty Little Lover'. But don't get alienated, this mans talent is out of this world and still so down to earth...no cliche. Want a song that will really make you think? Then listen to the lyrics of 'How Dark Is Gone'. "Would you rather wave a flag/Or wave goodbye/Would you rather flood your heart/Or dare let them see you cry/Rather fight a war or live in fear/Aren't you glad to be here". You want to be taken back to the jams of Bob Marley? Then how about 'Finding Our Way'? Want a beautiful luck of love song? Then nothing illuminates brighter than 'Shine'. Or how how the ballad of a beautiful break-up song that shows that lost love isn't always the cousin of hate? Than 'Goodbye To You' really salutes a relationship that will always be true with the marriage of lyrics like, "shattered and chained to our past/battered and too proud to ask/walked a razor's edge poisoned by degrees/create each other's voids fill each other's needs/my options are plenty/but my choices are few" in a divorce only bitter in regret. Or if all that is too much for everybody you could just 'Dance Like Fire' before we all get burnt. Because this album has it all, especially a wealth of time earned lessons learned parables like 'All That Has Grown', like artist and audience learning from each other all over again. But for a man whose catalogue of albums keeps developing like the class in session he brings to his rhyming couplets, there's much more here. The title has to go to the very track this album is named after as Harper and the criminals go back into the ring with no lifeline. But boy does he box and rock hard...and clever too. 'Like A King' the leader of the protest song who merged the stories and struggles of Martin Luther and Rodney King speaks up for "Trevon Martin, Ezel Ford, Michael Brown and so many more" for a track consciously clever like the message behind 'Like A King'. Because lets call it like it is. This is murder! And Harper kills any notion that he'll go quietly into a corrupt night that's no longer good. Like something as poetic and prophetic he'll rage and rage against the dying of the light. Plain and simple, Ben Harper tells it like it is. "They shot him in the back/now it's a crime to be black/so don't act surprised/when it gets vandalized/there's good cops/bad cops/white cops/black cops". Like The Boss when 'The Rising' was necessary we need this man for the worlds worst threat since terroisim more than ever. 'Call It What It Is'....hope in a time of fear. TIM DAVID HARVEY.