March 13, 2003

Ben of All Trades

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Almost any review of Ben Harper you’ll read will say the same three things: his toe-dipping in the popularly neglected pools of reggae and funk is refreshing and impressive; his lyrics could use some work; and as far as the collection of songs, there’s always a few diamonds, but a whole lot of rough threatening to cover them up. That said, it seems ridiculous to have to repeat those comments for Harper’s fifth full-length studio album Diamonds on the Inside, but unfortunately, Harper doesn’t really leave the listener a choice.

Diamonds possibly represents one of the most eclectic mixes of stylistic musings to find its place on a single album. Harper’s songs run from reggae to blues to a cappella and almost everything in between, and therein lies the problem. In general, there is absolutely nothing wrong with producing a stylistically eclectic album. In fact, a lack of exploration and innovation is one of the worst things an artist, especially one who is well-seasoned in the recording industry, can bring to the studio. Still, it seems that on Diamonds on the Inside, Harper does not give enough attention to any of the styles he explores and therefore becomes stuck playing into certain stereotypes of each. The ballads are a little too slick, the rock songs are a little too guitar-squealin’, the African influenced songs seem troublingly close to The Lion King.

Bottom line, it seems like Harper does not give himself the chance to really sink his teeth into any one thing and make it his own, and most of the tracks on Diamonds suffer because of it. “When She Believes” is an admirable attempt at a kind of MoTown, love-ballad style, but the song ultimately plods under Harper’s falsetto with little of the groove and soul that raised many MoTown greats to classic status. Even the inclusion of syrupy orchestration can’t pick up the slack.

“Temporary Remedy,” one of the obviously rock-influenced songs on the album, veers a bit too close to Lenny Kravitz for taste and leaves some authenticity to be desired in the wailing guitar solo. “So High So Low,” following along the same lines, starts off with a howl worthy of Axl Rose and bottoms out like a late-eighties, high-school garage band’s attempts at cover songs.

Still, despite the missteps, Diamonds on the Inside, like every other Ben Harper album, does include its proverbial diamonds. In this case, they show up most noticeably at the beginning. The album starts off promisingly enough with the funk-detailed, reggae jam “With My Own Two Hands.” The song’s only flaws are, perhaps, Harper’s less than inspiring lyrics and a bit too smooth voice. The next song, “When It’s Good,” is a bluesy number, twangy and sweet, that would also benefit from a little more gravel in Harper’s lady-killer vocals, but is, all in all, solid and well-crafted. There’s no denying Harper’s essential talent as a songwriter.

Mid-album songs like “Brown Eyed Blues” and “Bring the Funk” also head back in the right direction with delicious funk bass (by the skillful Juan Nelson) and a somewhat more practiced sound. They’re nothing you’d call genius pieces, but they find Harper in the more comfortable surroundings of the styles at which he excels. The songs carry themselves remarkably better than the “rock” songs or even the more acoustic, African-influenced ballads toward the end, which leave the listener wondering how this can possibly be the same album that warmly lured them in with a tender reggae beat and a bluesy chaser.

It seems to be an aggravating mystery why Harper chose to include such a wide variety of musical styles on Diamonds on the Inside instead of focusing his attention on developing a few select ones. His obvious vocal abilities and strengths as a songwriter, which he has repeatedly proven throughout his career, are simply not given a chance to shine because of the lack of focus in the spectrum of songs on the album.

Also, because it’s so easy to be distracted by the constant changes in genre, it’s twice as easy to miss much of the raw display of talent produced by Harper’s band, The Innocent Criminals. The Criminals’ core consists of bassist Juan Nelson, drummer Oliver Charles, and percussionist Leon Mobley, all of whose recording histories with Harper goes back 1994.

Fortunately, the instrumental high points of the album do not go totally unnoticed, and those high points are enough to remind the listener that even if Harper and the Innocent Criminals get a little too caught up in eclecticism, they more than make up for it in presentational skill.

Archived article by Thea Brown