Harper’s talent lies ‘on the Inside’

It wasn’t until I listened to Diamonds on the Inside, the fifth studio album by Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, that I realized why the genre-bending soul-rock quintet applied to themselves such a paradoxical title; while smoking weed and producing Christian rock both constitute criminal behavior, the real infraction that Ben Harper has been getting away with is pirating styles from musical legends and making them his own. Yet Harper and his merry men do it so well that they absolve themselves of any guilt. In fact, I’m convinced the quality of his music has single-handedly prevented religiously-flavored rock from becoming illegal, which, while not exactly to his credit, is a feat in and of itself.

Besides the unfortunate oversight of giving his album a title that sounds like a Lisa Frank coloring book, Ben Harper gets everything right on Diamonds on the Inside, as he refines his skills with the various styles he started playing around with on his 1999 album, Burn to Shine. It will come as no surprise to Harper fans that no two songs on Diamonds sound alike, as Burn to Shine was one of the most diverse consolidations of musical styles ever to be achieved by any one artist. Harper again displays his incredible versatility on his latest, laying down a series of melodies that wander across the entire spectrum of musical genres.

The unexpected treats that fans will find on Diamonds are the funky grooves with which Harper has infused many of his new songs, showing a progression of interest and experimentation since Burn to Shine. Tracks such as “Brown Eyed Blues” and “Bring the Funk” have been pumped with bouncing beats and meowing guitar riffs reminiscent of the Commodores, Bobby Womack and ’70s porn. Chili Pepper Greg Kurstin even lends a hand on the electric piano for these tracks and is given a chance to show off a little during instrumental stretches. Ben Harper was raised on Motown and soul, but it was not until Diamonds that he decided to venture from his quiet, bluesy arrangements and don the platform shoes to produce some truly funky tracks.

It’s hard to imagine that an artist so heavily influenced by funk and soul would be similarly inspired by the likes of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, but Harper’s music could most easily be classified as folk rock, and moments of Diamonds invoke both of these artists’ earlier recordings. Harper’s croaking vocals on the title track could easily be mistaken for those of Dylan, and the a cappella hymn, “Picture of Jesus” (backed by Ladysmith Black Mambazo), sounds like it could have been lifted right from Graceland. Harper’s love of music was nurtured in part by working in his grandparents’ Claremont folk instrument store, so it seems only natural that he would pay tribute to the heroes of the genre, but in his homage he manages to embarrass them a little by improving upon their unique styles and beating them at their own game.

While Harper may not be comparable to Dylan lyrically, he proved on 1995’s Fight For Your Mind that he was an artist that deserved not only to be heard, but listened to as well. His words aren’t merely decorations for his music, and in many cases it is the message rather than the melody that carries the song. Diamonds may not be the politically-charged tour de force that Fight For Your Mind was, and the metaphoric verses occasionally become entangled in their own cleverness, but Harper’s lyrics still outshine those of his contemporaries, recreating the modern love song in a way that hasn’t been done since Marvin Gaye (one of Harper’s idols) first crooned “Let’s Get it On.” At 33, Harper has an aura of experience that most younger artists don’t, and the way he sings his extolling verses in a voice that quivers with lust makes John Mayer’s affected attempts to woo teenage girls seem about as romantic as the hasty scrawling of a second grader on a Looney Tunes Valentine card.

While his lyrics on Diamonds occasionally walk the line between beauty and schmaltz, Harper’s vocals imbue them with such sincerity that even a verse like “I know you may not want to see me/On your way down from the clouds,” (on “She’s Only Happy in the Sun”) can be rescued from its hopeless cheesiness as it is buoyed along by his soft, liquid tones. Perhaps the best compliment I can give Harper is to say that he can compare women to angels without making it sound clichéd in the least.

Those who think Harper is at his best when he rocks out, as on his third album, The Will to Live, will be happy to know that he performs two songs on Diamonds using his signature Weissenborn slide guitar. On “So High So Low” he jams with a Hendrix-like energy and pulls off the remarkable feat of taking monosyllabic words and giving them about 19 syllables. What distinguishes Harper’s brand of rock from that of most modern punks and metal-heads is his ability to retain the calm smoothness in his voice, even as guitars are churning and drumsticks are splintering all around it. This is best demonstrated on Burn to Shine’s “The Woman in You,” in which Harper sings a falsetto lullaby over a crescendo of electric chaos; on Diamonds, however, he allows himself a little more passion and lets his voice get dirtier.

Strangely, the first single from Diamonds, “With My Own Two Hands,” is the one that represents the album the least. Of Harper’s albums, Diamonds is the one that shows the least influence from Bob Marley, and the reggae-inspired “With My Own Two Hands” does not gel with the other songs. However, like many of the songs, it references moments from previous albums, namely “Jah Work” on The Will to Live. Harper fans and pot-heads will also notice that the Thiele tongue drum on “Blessed to be a Witness” echoes the refrain from Fight For Your Mind’s signature track, “Burn One Down.”

The most outstanding track on Diamonds, though, is “When She Believes,” a powerfully orchestrated hymn that shows us how severely undervalued the accordion is as an instrument. The accordion has never been taken seriously by anyone except gondoliers, yet it is both beautiful and dignified on “When She Believes” as it weeps majestically along with the harps and violins.

Though the song’s lyrics are often religiously-themed, they are never obtuse or evangelistic, and can be enjoyed the same way the beauty of a church can be admired even by those who are not religious. If Harper were stripped of the marketplace of musical influences from which he borrows, “When She Believes” would stand as a track that is uniquely his own.

It is likely that Ben Harper’s refusal to abandon his capricious style and find a sound of his own is what has kept him below the radar of popular music for the last nine years that he has been producing albums. Ironically, his protégé, surfer-singer Jack Johnson, has received far more media attention than Harper has. While his skills are vastly inferior to those of his mentor, Johnson has established himself in a genre of music that people can peg down, and they like him for it. While Johnson’s Brushfire Fairytales is an exercise in monotony, his album sales have soared due to his ability to adhere to a pop standard.

It is the standard that Ben Harper again defies with Diamonds on the Inside, on which he shows that, by virtue of his eclecticism, he is one of the best artists of his generation, as well as one of the most overlooked.

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