The Road More Traveled

Fun fact: Harper wrote the score for a children's film called "Follow the Drinking Gourd."

Ben Harper is a brazen rock traditionalist. Reared on Marley's words of

uplift, Zeppelin's blues-rock crunch and classic soul's spiritual yearning,

he makes records that draw on the same customs that quenched the musical

thirst of many a baby boomer and have come to form what some refer to as

rock's official canon. (For more on these, see Rolling Stone magazine

lists and Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame inductees.) Whether or not you have any

attachment to said customs will greatly determine your level of interest in Ben

Harper's music and his fourth album, Burn To Shine, which is a

diverse sampling of conventional rock tactics circa 1999.

It speaks volumes about Harper's craftsmanship that his vision can

encompass pathways as disparate as those of roots/ hippie/ good-time songs

("Steal My Kisses" sounds like the Jackson 5 singing about a sunshine

daydream) and Metallica-styled Viking blues balladry (the epic mixture of

despair and yearning in "Two Hands of a Prayer"), and still retain a

distinct sense of self. Much of this is attributable to Harper's soulful

singing, matched in the modern classicist oeuvre only by the late Jeff

Buckley. Also helpful is the fact that Harper's band, Innocent Criminals,

can convey everything from jam-band lightheartedness to metallic blues

ferocity without losing their distinctiveness. Listen to them churn out a

breakneck Southern boogie on "Burn to Shine" (RealAudio exceprt) and just watch the Black Crowes

get jealous again at being upstaged. Harper is even capable of leading the

band (not too far) off the beaten path on "Suzie Blue" (RealAudio excerpt), a Tom Waits-style

romp where scratchy distorted vocals front a Dixieland combo, possibly a

sign that Harper is becoming a little restless with the tradition's

constraints.

Still, these constraints are Burn To Shine's prevailing flavors, and

Harper's lyrical handicaps — unfortunately spotlighted by JP Plunier's

overly stylized production (up-front vocals, the band mixed behind) —

only heighten the taste. While there's nothing particularly offensive about

this album, there's nothing particularly innovative about it either.

These qualities will likely endear Harper to radio programmers — who

could easily send a half-dozen of these songs into heavy rotation tomorrow

— but they're certainly not enough to earn him a spot in the rock canon.