Sharps & flats

Ben Harper is no Bob Dylan -- he's actually not even Robbie Robertson.

By Seth Mnookin
September 1, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Ben Harper has always received more than his due. Hailed as a boy genius with his 1994 debut, "Welcome to the Cruel World," Harper has, over the course of his two subsequent albums, been compared to Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Joni Mitchell. And two years ago more than one reviewer likened Harper's shift from textured acoustic to amped electric rock on "The Will to Live" to a revolution -- similar to Dylan plugging in at Newport in 1965.

This hype is understandable, to a point. Harper presents an endlessly engaging archetype: the earnest inginue who cares more about artistic truth and beauty than worldly success. He painstakingly played his own Dobros and acoustic guitars on "Welcome to the Cruel World," and in a pop-music landscape that favors slickly packaged and programmed recipes for success, he continues to sprinkle Weissenborn slides and delicate finger-picking throughout his songs. But Harper is no Dylan, Marley or Hendrix. On his fourth album, "Burn to Shine," he continues along the path he has been traveling for half a decade, offering up a dozen songs that combine crunching rock and an aching falsetto croon into a handful of gems. Almost everything is good; almost none of it truly great. Here he's not even a Vic Chesnutt, a Robbie Robertson or a Joan Armatrading.


On his best songs, Harper takes advantage of his restless creative energy, translating tributes and references in a manner that sounds more genuine than cloying. "Suzie Blue," a Dixieland jazz number complete with a swinging cornet solo and ribald trombone slides courtesy of members of the Real Time Jazz Band, rises above shtick. "Steal My Kisses," a relentlessly upbeat serenade that features off-tempo guitar comping and a human beat box, recalls the lighthearted charm of "Mama's Got a Girlfriend" on "Welcome to the Cruel World"; and "Show Me a Little Shame," an organ-led blues send-up, shows that Harper -- whose voice is a little high-pitched for the blues -- can thrive in the genre he obviously feels so strongly about.

As usual, the more delicate, acoustic-based songs that deal with Harper's yearnings and romantic dreams are the most satisfying. The album is bookended by "Alone" and "In the Lord's Arms," a pair of tender numbers that recall Cat Stevens. "Alone," which starts off with an almost ominous march and builds to lonely yelps, delivers the shivers Harper has long promised. But his forays into a rougher sonic world end up sounding contrived and unsatisfying. "Burn to Shine" has a trio of these wannabe rockers -- "Less," "Forgiven" and the title track -- and all three end up sounding forced rather than genuinely charged.

Harper may yet deliver a masterpiece, and he may yet develop into an artist who can rightfully be discussed in the same breath with rock's deities. For now, however, fans will need to be satisfied with bursts of delicious promise mixed up with ambitious stumbling.

Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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