Every Ben Harper record features much more than blues, but it's that specific sound that he does so well -- blues meaning as much an emotional attitude as an exacting sonic style. On his forthcoming album, Give Till It's Gone (Virgin, May 17), Harper's penchant for turning the tragic uplifting continues with "I Will Not Be Broken" and "Pray That Our Love Sees the Dawn." You love Ben Harper for his diverse range and his fearless ability to continually push himself, but the reason you turn back again and again is because he has a rare ability of giving you hope in the face of the sheer and sharp suffering of existence. He knows he's been broken, which is why he demands that he will not be. He's never been the false prophet promising the pleasures of eternity (GOP anyone?); he is the friend you call at three in the morning because your heart is broken and you need a voice to remind you that life is like that sometimes, to remember that he's still on your side.
The first single from his latest, "Rock and Roll Is Free," is available as a free download on his website. (It's also ringtone-ready, the press release tells me.) "Rock and Roll" is a good pop-rock song, but it's not a great Ben Harper song. I'm not surprised. It's an anthemic attempt at a hit, and a good one in the vein of Lenny Kravitz's "Fly Away," a song that hooks you on the hook and delivers a catchy guitar riff. It's also a song that appeals to a record label in desperate need of hits (and ringtones); its formulaic sculpture is why Starbucks felt safe picking it as a single of the week. Download it, just don't think it defines this album.
What people will remember from Give Till It's Gone is the big beat of "Spilling Faith," beaten by Ringo Starr (which explains the Beatles-esque melody), which spills seamlessly into the six-minute instrumental, "Get There From Here;" the bluesy "Waiting for the Sign," a signature Harper guitar-driven track with disco stabs that harkens back to Burn to Shine; and the warm comfort and gentle harmonizing of "Pray That Our Love." This last stands among his greatest love songs: "Morning Yearning," "Beloved One," and "Woman in You," among many others, now two decades in the making.
Bottom line: this is a great Ben Harper record. He's made two good ones in the last two years: White Lies for Dark Times satisfied his harder edge with his band Relentless 7, though it did not leave a permanent imprint on his long-standing catalog, while As I Call You Down, an acoustic trio project with Dhani Harrison and Joseph Arthur, is solid and enjoyable, albeit a record of a certain mood and temperament. (Again, those Beatles harmonies.) By contrast, Give Till It's Gone is Harper's most far-reaching since The Will to Live. With that sort of range, there's a song for every moment, a trait uncommon and therefore appreciated when we need the voice of a friend we may not even know we had.
I take recommendations seriously, especially when it's coming from my DJ circle. At the prodding of DJ Center, I came across a hard-to-research record by a cat named Lord Echo from New Zealand. With Fat Freddy's Drop and Electric Wire Hustle both coming from that country, I'm always fiending for more. Turns out Echo is really Mike Fabulous, part of the NZ-based Black Seeds, whose record Solid Ground made its rounds in my iPod for some time. Melodies (Economy Records) is a totally different vibe. A gritty, vintage, analog, early '60s soul reggae type of thing. A back in the day when Jamaicans were hoarding American jazz and R&B vinyl and turning out covers better than the originals type of thing. Echo returns that favor by spinning out a seven-minute take on Sister Sledge's "Thinking of You" that I simply can't stop spinning. Yeah, Sledge was late '70s disco-soul, but Echo flips it without losing any of the sweetness. And sweet is the sole word that keeps popping up when Echo's tracks emerge from my speakers.
One of the greatest historical atrocities in music was the replacement of drummers in the early '80s by drum machines, coupled with the advent of synthesizers. (Sorry, fans of A Flock of Seagulls.) It's why, as epic an album as Marcus Garvey was, I can't take anything Burning Spear does today seriously. It's why the Abyssinians reunion was a joke when stacked up against Satta Massagana. Yet somehow Echo is able to slap a bass, throw in processed handclaps and still make a slamming song, as in the trucking "Wang East." If released three decades ago, Melodies would be a lost classic on par with Scratch's shelved Roast Fish Collie Weed & Corn Bread. Fortunately it was released in December 2010, and with this shiny toy you're reading these musings on right now, New Zealand is no farther away than hitting play on your iPod.