Ben Harper Cooks

Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminals - Burn To Shine
(Virgin Records)
3 1/2 stars (out of 5 stars)

Story by Tony Bonyata

Take the folkie songwriting skills of Cat Stevens. Gently fold in the softer side of Jimi Hendrix. Mix well with soul, funk and the blues. Briefly sear over heavy metal and garnish with hip-hop.
The tasty result of this recipe is the fourth, and latest, album from Ben Harper entitled Burn To Shine. On it singer / songwriter / guitarist Harper further delves into his broad musical influences, producing a strong, varied collection of songs.
Joined by his band The Innocent Criminals, featuring Juan Nelson on bass, Dean Butterworth on drums and percussionist David Leach, Harper jumps so quickly from one style of American-influenced music to the next he makes it hard to guess what direction he's heading in.
Although the album opens up on a somber note on "Alone", Harper wastes no time in changing the pace with the beautiful number "The Woman In You", which at first features a hot-buttered-soul falsetto vocal delivery over a reflective Hendrix guitar line, but then comes to a pounding head with thundering rhythms and mournful gospel-flavored moaning. "Less", with it's raw, thrashing hard rock tendencies actually sounds like early nineties grunge until it morphs into a sludge-pit of Black Sabbath riffs and possessed chanting, while "Please Bleed" again hearkens back to grunge rock only this time it flirts with Harper's own unique style of black soul music. His proud, gritty guitar and whiskey-soaked voice sound ready to bust open the double swinging doors of a southern roadhouse on the title track, "Burn To Shine".
Harper's harder side in the end, however, gives way to numbers like "Suzie Blue", which adds the woodwinds, brass and banjos of early turn-of-the-century Dixieland jazz to his own blues-on-cabaret vocals, "Steal My Kisses", a jaunty little piece of soulful funk, and the folk-tinged "In The Lord's Arms", "Two Hands Of A Prayer" and the fragile, yet touching lullaby "Beloved One", all three which sound like early Cat Stevens on a diet of chitlins and collard greens
Adding many of the best ingredients of American music, Ben Harper has once again cooked up a rich, delicious disc on Burn To Shine.

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