By: Tim Donnelly
White Lies For Dark Times by Ben Harper and Relentless7 has been officially out for a week, but I've been lucky enough to have been living with it all of '09. Living with it so much, that six tunes from the record make my 25 most played list on my iPod. That has never happened so rapidly before.
I'm a man who succumbs to hourly diversions into different genres, bands, live shows and hidden gems. Listening too much to a single thing has never been my bag. So, when I looked at the most played list and saw the numbers, I realized that right now, this record means the world to me on different levels - the strength of the songs, the bombast of the guitars, the pacing of the rhythm and most importantly the depth and the immediate relation I have to the lyrics. It's one of those rare occasions, when a record mirrors life and the situations caused by, to paraphrase Ivan Neville, "living in a world gone mad." It has become part of me and it couldn't have come at a better time, serendipitously making it a soundtrack for change and growth.
Change also had to happen for Ben Harper, the man behind the formation of the Relentless7 (R7). "It was like I was staring into an abyss," he says of the decision to move on from The Innocent Criminals.
"Personally, it is exactly what I needed musically, these three guys [guitarist Jason Mozersky, drummer Jordan Richardson, bassist Jesse Ingalls] to come in and grab me by the throat, shake me around and bring this to life. I needed it, man. Desperately."
To some, this news may shock. It may also disappoint young lovers out there to know that "Steal Your Kisses" will not be on the setlist. And a big "boo-hoo" to the midnight tokers; you will NOT hear "Burn One Down" coming from the stage.
"They need to know that goin' in," says Harper in fair warning to his fans' expectations. On the night of the record release show at NYC's Webster Hall he told it even straighter from the stage.
"Because I'm in New York, I'll speak your language," he said in response to requests for older material from the audience. "I'm not a human fucking jukebox. You aren't gonna hear 'Sexual Healing' or 'Burn One Down.' You ain't gonna hear that shit again."
|Ben Harper and Relentless7 at Webster Hall by Michael Jurick|
The moan of former frat boys and the women who love them buzzed through the room after that declaration. It doesn't matter to Harper; it's his ball, his game, his court.
Though the band is currently writing ("we are writing like crazy, pen to paper" says Harper) and working out new material at sound checks, one or two of Harper's old songs may make it into the rotation, though it may take awhile to recognize them. At Webster Hall they re-worked the funky marching band drumbeats of "Better Way" into a crushing dirge that would have made Uncle Neil and his Crazy Horse cohorts beam in approval.
However, some of us have been waiting for Harper to fully unleash his "rawk" side for some time. Don't get me wrong, Harper has always rocked, but now it's pedal to metal all the time, making speeding ticket rock for those open enough to embrace the ride.
"It's as different a musical environment as I have ever been in," says Harper. "Everyday I am asking myself, 'Is this happening to me? This is actually happening to me? I am in this band with this music?' It is different man. It is a new day. It is important for me to say this. This is a band. A band that could not exist without the other three guys. It's really the first time I have not been the center of the circle; [here, I am] a corner of the square. It is a completely different environment for me. I love it. I prefer it."
Freed from the pressure of carrying the creative and overall direction of a band seems to have opened Harper up lyrically. His writing is concise, meaningful, gripping, accessible, humorous and above all, real. He's not talking about the hypothetical, the hypocritical or the mystical.
"The music demanded it. Art has a way of extracting what it needs when it needs it. Not to actually mistake musicians for artists, but if there is artistry to it then that's the case," Harper says. "Otherwise, the lyrics wouldn't have lived up to the urgency of the music."
"I don't write about myself lyrically. Otherwise, the songs would be terribly boring and mundane," laughs Harper. "So, I just tend to write about ideas which we all see and feel."
I tell Harper that it feels like he's been peeping in on my life because some of the songs reflect "the now and the not so distant past" for me. "That's the best part of it," responds Harper. "Hopefully that's the case that the listener can go beyond anything that is defined by my life, world or surroundings [and] touch someone in a way that is universal and means different thing to different people."
"I think people in their world of minds are starting to pay attention to the lyrics or these lyrics have struck a chord and I'm impressed" he states, "I have to tell you that one my silent laments is that people weren't connecting to the lyrics. I wasn't getting any lyrical feedback. But now, the majority of general feedback I am getting is lyrical, which is a great relief."
It's not hard to understand why his words are getting their just due. A few choice examples:
It takes a hundred miles of love/ to heal a mile of pain ("Shimmer and Shine")
You may be a cheap date/ but my therapy is expensive as hell ("Why Must You Always Dress in Black")
I'm not sure what worries me more/ the fact that I'm talking to a wall/ or that the wall keeps answering me ("Keep It Together")
Never underestimate how complicated a simple life can be ("Keep it Together")
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