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Socially conscious observations

Ben Harper - Both Sides of the Gun
3 stars (out of 5 stars)
Reviewed: April 1, 2006
Ben Harper

Review by Andy Argyrakis

He may have debuted in 1994, but even over the course of a decade, it's still been nearly impossible to pinpoint Ben Harper. The leader of the Innocent Criminals has dipped his hand in everything from alternative rock to soulful pop to all out R&B, funk, world music and gospel. The singer/songwriter's last CD There Will Be a Light was actually a Grammy Award winning collaboration with the legendary Blind Boys of Alabama, an experience that clearly stretched and inspired the relatively consistent album maker. In fact, the spirit moved Harper so much that his latest Both Sides of the Gun is a double disc studio offering, taking those vertical messages and mixing them with socially conscious observations over a cauldron of all the aforementioned sonics, plus tints of reggae, rock n' roll and soft spoken balladry.

Although fans will fawn over the fact that there's two discs worth of material to devour, there are a handful of areas where Harper could've trimmed the fat into one killer single album rather than the subsequent lopsided lengthiness. The opening track on the first installment ("Morning Yearning") could've actually been the first one cut given its drowsy, lullaby-like moans, while the near dirge-like drones of "Reason To Mourn" also comes across with sleepiness. On the second disc, "Better Way" unfolds with a mystical, almost tribal tone with Harper's screaming of the choruses and "Sweet Nothing Serenade" sounds like a misguided attempt to merge the Blind Boys' blues over Lenny Kravitz-styled electric guitar playing.

However, Harper is extremely fruitful when meshing old school soul influences and his churchy flair, especially on the title track, which could very well match the mood of Al Green on a Sunday morning in his Memphis pulpit. Motown memories also permeate "Black Rain," a commentary on the Hurricane Katrina situation that calls for equality. Even though "Picture In a Frame" starts out mellow, it slowly escalates with emotion, showcasing Harper's split second switching between vocal delicacy and smoky grit. Even more empowering is the project's overall finale "Serve Your Soul," a jarring eight minutes that fills the singer's pipes and guitar patterns through distortion with grimy gustiness. It's a fitting end to an unpredictable album, that had it been clipped to a sole offering, would've been just as entertaining as Harper's other endeavors.

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