Thursday, May 4, 2006
BEN HARPER | Both Sides of the Gun | Virgin
Aptly named, this dual disc finds Ben Harper oscillating between delicate troubadour and brazen bluesman, revolutionary and romantic. Both empowered and under fire by the slings and arrows of love and society, disc one embraces a handful of trembling ballads that showcase Harper’s softer side. Strung together by acoustic fingering and warm arrangements, Harper’s poetic words mirror the human experience in a fashion more Renaissance man than rock star.
Disc two throbs with Sly and the Family Stone meets “Shaft”-style funk, a toe-tappin’ collection of rootsy Southern-fried rock with a dash of jazzy sass on the smoldering “The Way You Found Me.” The tamboura-led “Better Way,” a politically infused anthem, also adds to the mélange and shifts the slide-guitar guru away from the Zepplinesque riffs heard on his older material and into world music territory. Unpredictable and fresh, Harper’s perfectly balanced double shot of soul is right on target. —Hilary Langford
VAN HUNT | On the Jungle Floor | Capitol
For want of a better classification, people will call this 29-year-old Ohio-reared, Atlanta-based singer/songwriter a “neo-soul” artist, a term as meaningless as it is obnoxious. In all fairness, there is a good deal of soul in his music (think Isaac Hayes, Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield) and a fair amount of neo (if “neo” means ’70s psych-rock and ’80s new wave; if you’re thinking bangin’ hip-hop samples, think again). Maybe “neo-soul” is as good a fit as any, although Van Hunt, who wrote or co-wrote every song on Jungle save one, a Stooges cover (!), is weirder than John Legend, D’Angelo and Alicia Keys combined.
Compared with other major-label chart aspirants, Hunt is a real freak, what with his velvet jackets and dirty guitars and kooky vintage synths and stanky bass lines, but that’s not to say he isn’t derivative sometimes. During his finer moments, he channels new-wave funksters such as Prince and Rick James; at his worst (the unspeakably vile “Ride, Ride, Ride”), he could pass for Lenny Kravitz.
But despite that one abomination, and a vaguely mainstream studio sheen for which we can probably blame producer Bill Bottrell (Michael Jackson, Sheryl Crow), Jungle is a refreshing departure from the usual urban-music offerings. With its slinky strings, rubber-band rhythms, and sexed-up falsetto vocals, lead single “Character” is that rare phenomenon: a bedroom jam that doesn’t make me want to suffocate myself with my pillow. The nicest surprise, though—aside from the Stooges cover, which is indescribably great in both concept and execution—is the closing cut, “The Night Is Young,” a sweetly optimistic pop ballad bolstered by a perfect teensy piano hook and a celestial female chorus. To say that it’s worthy of Burt Bacharach might be stretching it, but it’s not far off the mark, and that’s high praise indeed. —René Spencer Saller
SHOOTER JENNINGS | Electric Rodeo | Universal South
It must be tough to be the son of a legend; Shooter’s late daddy Waylon is one of country music’s icons. On Shooter’s second album, Electric Rodeo, he seems to struggle with this shadow, attempting to make a unique statement while acknowledging the legacy of his genes. Unfortunately, he misses the mark.
Bouncing back and forth between very derivative Skynyrd riffs and Waylon’s signature loping rhythm, Shooter fails to establish a unique voice. Lyrical redundancy pervades the songs (“All I know is a bottle and a guitar,” “I have been high,” “little white lines”…OK, we get it already), and his attempts at pure country are littered with clichés. —James Kelly