Ben Harper Seeks His Niche

July 25 [7:55 EDT] -- What's the difference between Ben Harper and, say, Maxwell?

They do share some obviously cool stuff like huge afros and romantic songs. The difference may be purely categorical. The soul music Maxwell performs has deep roots in pop history, and benefits from the sudden emergence of contemporaries like D'Angelo.

Ben Harper's acoustic folk fares better with foreign audiences. Harper's first two albums (1993's Welcome to the Cruel World and its follow-up, 1995's Fight for Your Mind) were hugely popular... in Turkey and New Zealand.

Harper, an LA-bred singer-songwriter in the Tracy Chapman mold, unwittingly encourages his relative anonymity with a non-confrontational style. He explores stark social issues like poverty and racism without pointing fingers. His frail, high-pitched voice connotes nobility in the face of overwhelming struggle instead of demanding justice. Still, Harper has a devoted following among neo-beatniks, and touring extensively

with such acts as Pearl Jam, the Fugees, and PJ Harvey raised his profile.

On his latest, "Will to Live" ["Faded" Video Clip, 1.1MB QuickTime], Ben Harper and his band, the Innocent Criminals, add electrified rock touches and flit through genres (Latin funk shows up on "Mama's Trippin'" and reggae on "Jah Work") in a much ballyhooed effort to carve out a US pop niche. Early reviews don't begrudge Harper's neo-folk sensitivities. But critics found Harper's lyrics on "Will to Live" lacking in passion and pain, stifling his rise to transcendent folk singer status. Rolling Stone said, "If Harper... explores the emotional demons that are the stock in trade of singer/songwriters, he could be a force to be reckoned with."

Then he might become a soul singer, and really infringe on Maxwell's territory.