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Multi-talented rock star reloads with ‘Gun’

Chris McGrady | Thursday, March 30, 2006

Mixing funky soul, echoing acoustic scales and harmonic blues riffs is a challenge for any musician. But Ponoma, Calif. born singer/songwriter Ben Harper manages to do this and more.

Harper’s music is powerful – both lyrically and musically – and is evocative of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Ben E. King and even Stevie Ray Vaughn. As has come to be expected from Harper, “Both Sides of the Gun,” a double LP released by Virgin Records, is catchy, soulful and a poignant and politically aware mix of impressive music. This release is inordinately complete.

The LP consists of two CDs, both providing a completely different feel and sound, showing the range of musical variety Harper is capable of. The first CD, “Morning Yearning,” reminds one of a rainy day, with the acoustic picking reminiscent of raindrops on a sidewalk. Harper’s voice is both soothing and melodic, and begs to be listened to. The first song, aptly named “Morning Yearning,” is one of the album’s best and inspires a feeling of somberness as well as a precedent for the tracks to come. Its combination of strings, guitar, harmonic melodies, piano and voice combine together into the perfect storm and an amazing song.

The next song, “Waiting For You,” is the type of amorous track that will have couples slow dancing across the nation. But unlike the bulk of modern love songs, “Waiting for You” sounds sincere and true. In this earnestness grows something that many love songs cannot claim – believability. It is this sincerity – this utter domination of the idea of truthfulness and trust in one’s music – that elevates Harper into the upper echelon of music. The listener gets the idea that Harper creates music for himself. He creates not for the masses, not for the popularity or the fame, but for the very joy of creation. He creates for the joy of singing and writing, of making something that will inspire both him and others. This is the basis of Harper’s greatness.

Harper is also inspired on the song “Happy Everafter In Your Eyes.” This is in the same field as “Waiting For You,” an idealistic love song that will bring a feeling of warmth even to the iciest of hearts.

The second CD of the LP is completely different from the first. Entitled “Better Way,” Harper shirks his acoustic guitar for the majority of the songs, giving the second half of “Both Sides of the Gun” a new vibe. This CD is primarily a mix of blues, funk and soul. While some of the tracks will remind the listener Hendrix’s roaring guitar solos, others will inspire thoughts of Blue’s Traveler’s jam sessions. Harper makes both work in his favor.

The CD opens with “Better Way,” a catchy, upbeat tune about faith in oneself and one’s ability to succeed despite setbacks. Even at one point when Harper’s gentle voice turns to screaming, he makes it work.

“Black Rain” is a song about the destruction in New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina and speaks of Harper’s feelings about the current government. “This government business is straight up sadistic,” Harper says, speaking of government’s handling of one of the worst natural disasters in America’s history.

“Please Don’t Talk About Murder While I’m Eating” is a song that is clearly inspired by Jimi Hendrix, and succeeds in this light. Harper shows a different side of his voice in this track, a far cry from the sweet sound in previous hits such as “Steal My Kisses” and “Burn One Down.”

Perhaps the song that most impressively shows Harper’s versatility is the final track “Serve Your Soul.” This song is an eight-minute blues, rock and soul jam session that will inspire millions to strap on an air guitar and rock out. The song shows all the facets of Harper’s range in guitar as well as vocals, and is an auditory testament to his skill.

Smart, savvy and soulful, Harper fuses his music with originality and sincerity. In doing so, he is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale musical environment.