There are a lot of guys out there playing rock and roll and there's really not much that separates one from another when it comes to talent and ability. Sure one guy might be able to play a little bit faster than another or have a slightly easier time hitting all the notes when they sing. However the reality is there are probably close to a million people out there doing the same thing; playing gig after gig in bars for beer and money, but never quite making it to the next stage. It takes a certain undefinable extra to turn a talent with guitar and an ability to write music into something that will take you beyond the small town circuit and into the studios of Los Angeles and New York City.
You can listen to band after band until you find that one in a thousand who you'll actually hear. There's an insistence about them that calls out to you and pulls you into their music. You can analyze it for all your worth, trying to figure out what it is about them that catches your attention and holds it, but you'll probably just end up drawing a blank. Those with something really special to offer appeal on a visceral level and grab us because they trigger an instinctual rather than rational reaction.
I was reminded of this listening to the latest release from Ben Harper and Relentless7, White Lies For Dark Times, that came out May 05, '09 on EMI Music Canada. While I've probably heard countless other bands playing similar types of music who didn't make any sort of impression at all, Ben Harper and Relentless7 took hold of me from the first track and didn't let me go until the CD player clicked off eleven tracks later.
The songs on White Lies For Dark Times are the usual mix of hard and medium rock and roll songs with a couple of acoustic numbers thrown in for good measure that one has come to expect over the years. Yet, there's nothing usual about Harper and his band, and that shows through on each song no matter how its performed. Part of that is Ben Harper himself and the presence he exudes even on a studio recording. Whether it's the force of his personality, the amount of himself he sinks into each song, or something even less tangible, you can't ignore him or his music.
Unlike so many others Harper doesn't force himself or his music on you through melodramatic vocals or hysterical guitar solos. Yet at the same time his music demands that you pay attention to it and it draws you in almost without you knowing. While a great many song have a catchy refrain, or some other sort of "hook" that grabs your attention, with Harper it's the entire song that envelops you. Right from the start you are immersed in whatever little world he has created in those four to five minutes of music and you experience that reality to its fullest. While you might not find yourself humming some catchy little tune after listening to White Lies For Dark Times, unlike so much pop music, you're not going to forget what you felt.
There's also a level of introspection and intelligence to Harper's lyrics that's unusual for this genre. "Shimmer And Shine's", whose lyric supplied the title for the disc, second verse shows a level of understanding about both personal relationships and society at large you don't see that often anymore. "Bring me the music for the revolution/It puts my mind at ease to know/We're the problem we're the solution/the cure the disease/But life is trying to force me/force me to trust/I've done all I can/I'll do what I must". I can't remember the last time I've heard a pop song where anybody's been willing to accept responsibility for anything. Nine times out of ten it's usually someone else's fault if the relationship breaks up or if there's something wrong with the world.
Than again, maturity is another thing that distinguishes Harper's music and lyrics from the herd. It hearkens back to what I said about him not needing to do anything ostentatious for the listener to pay attention to his songs. Part of that is the fact that he's confident enough in his abilities that he's willing to let them be judged on their merits as music, but it also means he respects his audience's intelligence enough not to insult them with such displays. That doesn't mean he can't uncork some wonderful guitar solos – both on slide and regular guitar – but it means the solos he plays are there for the music, not to puff up his ego.
What impressed me most about his song writing is how he was able to throw in a phrase here or there that brought you up short. Lines like the last words in the song "Boots Like These", "You've got to live my life to get boots like these". On one level it can be taken as a personal plea for understanding, but on another it can be read as a general comment on people's tendency to judge anybody. The old saying,"walk a mile in somebody else's shoes", reminds us that we can't possibly understand what another has gone through unless we have experienced what life has thrown at them. In his song Harper sings, "Tonight I'm going to lose my mind/Tonight I need to lose my mind/Tonight I'm trying to lose my mind", and then follows that two lines later with "I gotta get out from inside my head".
There are a million reasons why people need to escape from themselves, and a million ways that people can find to make that escape, and unless you know what demons are troubling them, who are we to judge what they do to make their life bearable. With that one line at the end of the song, Harper reminds us that we can't possibly hope to understand how anybody ended up being who or what they are, because we've not had to live through the same shit they did. He's not offering any excuses for behaviour, but he's telling us there's always an explanation and we should try to keep that in mind before we jump to conclusions about anybody.