A review of Ben Harper & Relentless7, White Lies for Dark Times (2009)
“Relentless7,” the name of Ben Harper’s new band, sounds like the title of a book by Enid Blyton or Carolyn Keene. And they are an adventure to listen to.
Haper had, to date, split his music evenly between a smart, funky, blues/r’n’b/reggae inflected rock sound, and an equally accomplished “Ben Harper” style balladry that always felt, perhaps, a little out of its time. If you could get over yourself enough to really listen, Harper delivered the goods, especially in his early blues oriented songs. Like Bob Marley, Ben Harper knew how to combine the political and the poetic, protest and politics. But it might also be fair to say that the trademark Harper sound had perhaps become a little predictable of late. Great but predictable.
This record changes all that. It’s quite possibly the record of his career. Relentless7 consists, contrary to their name, of three players from Austin, Texas. Guitarist Jason Mozersky is a long-term friend (the friendship originates when he drove a truck for a Texas promoter and played his then band’s demo to a captive Ben Harper). During the 2005 recording sessions for Harper’s Both Sides of the Gun, Mozersky introduced Harper to his friends, drummer Jordan Richardson and bassist Jesse Ingalls. The initial jam session obviously resulted in enough excitement that the concept for Relentless7 was born.
Together, Harper and the seven produce a very full, rich, fuzzy wall of rock ‘n’ roll – swampy, Southern, and full of excitement. Something about their energy reminds me of the North Mississippi All Stars or Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (they don’t actually sound like either of these bands, so don’t get your hopes up too much; this is still Ben Harper as we know him). There’s also a focus, a low-down precision groove that’s reminiscent of ZZ Top. I’m especially fond of Richardson’s drums – he spends a lot of time on the floor toms, producing a lower register rumble to match the growling guitars and thundering bass.
I like the songs, too. I know the reviewers typically mention that Harper’s lyrics aren’t as literate as they could be – some call them mangled couplets – but I think there are strong songs here that will easily be as memorable as those from his early albums Welcome to the Cruel World and Fight for your Mind. I’m rapidly growing fond of “Shimmer & Shine,” “Whyu Must You Always Dress in Black?” and “Keep It Together (So I Can Fall Apart).”
Highly recommended. While the Relentless7 may not replace the Innocent Criminals permanently as Ben Harper’s backing band, they create a powerful, room-filling rumble that provides a fuller, better-grounded foundation for his considerable song craft, voice and lead guitar.