Album name: White Lies For Dark Times
Artist name: Ben Harper & Relentless7
Released: May 5th, 2009
ZME Rating: 8/10
Band names, eh? There’s rarely an in-between with them: they either sound exactly right, or absolutely ridiculous. Try saying any death metal band name with a straight face in polite company, and you’ll have an idea of what I mean with the latter. When your grandma asks you what you’re doing this weekend, and you say you’re going to see “The Spectacular DeathChrist Revue”, things fall on the wrong side of ludicrous. Of course, most of the band names we accept as being perfect are perfect because we’re so goddamn used to them: The Rolling Stones, Guns n’ Roses, The Intractable Rhino… The repitition makes them seem far more palatable than they probably were during the pitching phase. “Hey guys, how about Soundgarden?” It probably wasn’t immediately seized upon as the ultimate in bandnames. Because it’s slightly rubbish.
So it’s with an odd feeling of inconsequential surprise that I find Ben Harper’s new backing group has a name that immediately feels right on some deep level: Relentless7 – there’s a pleasing assonance and sibilance to it, for one thing. But as soon as “Number With No Name” kicks in, you realise that the name is perfectly suited to the band’s sound: dirty, greased-up, murky blues, giving a rock solid foundation to Harper’s impassioned vocals, and his renowned virtuosity with an overdriven lapsteel. If 2007’s Lifeline showcased Harper’s songwriting chops, this record is all about demonstrating his hair-down, arms-aloft jam-out tendencies, and Relentless7 do a wonderful job of both indulging and elevating Harper’s self-proclaimed “unapologetic rock”.
And luckily for everyone involved, Harper brought his A game on White Lies For Dark Times – it kicks off with five of the most driving, grizzled songs he’s ever let loose. This is “So High, So Low” Harper rather than “Suzie Blue” Harper – distorted blues riffs intersecting with some sultry slide licks. It’s formulaic to a large degree, but the payoff is in the execution rather than the innovation: it’s hard to care that the band isn’t playing a 7/4 jazz rhythm when the propulsive 4/4 beats are so much damn fun.
The immediate standouts of the album are tracks like “Up To You Now” (where Harper’s wail of “There’s no sound louder than war/ and we don’t have tomorrow anymore” is positively chilling) and “Fly One Time” – perfectly pitched rock songs, sounding like a more natural, less contrived U2 (if the Edge was ever inclined to use a Tubescreamer and a bottleneck slide, instead of a delay pedal and a messianic lead singer). Jason Mozersky’s admirable turn on guitar gives the songs a genuine kick; he never vies for attention with Harper, rather, they both give each other the room, and the interplay, to make even the single-note guitar riff through the second half of “Fly One Time” a beautiful thing.
It’s not all soaring riffs and dirty great blues lines, though. Harper brings in his usual folk and gospel influences on the tender “Skin Thin” and the solemn closer, “Faithfully Remain”; and the delicate “The Word Suicide” harkens back to the slow-burning majesty of “Please Bleed”.
“Shimmer and Shine”, the first single, does kind of sound like a demo take, but that’s probably more indicative of the rough-and-ready approach Harper and company took to this record than anything else. And while the lyrics throughout are more high school than highbrow, that’s nothing out of the ordinary for Harper – some vague platitudes and a pleasant rhyme scheme are all he’s ever needed to adorn his music. But really, any niggles I have with the album are beaten out by the surging, soaring enthusiasm that courses through it: it’s infectious, and it’s energetic, and it’s wonderful. It’s a brilliant rejuvenation of Harper, who’s struggled to carve out an identity for himself throughout his career, culminating in the confused double album Both Sides of the Gun.
Which makes it all the more gratifying that his most recent albums, White Lies… and Lifeline have been cohesive, splendid pieces of work. No reservations here: buy it, and soak in the love that was poured into this album. It’s as good as Harper’s ever been, and maybe as good as he’ll get. And it’s got a brilliant band name.
- Number With No Name
- Up To You Now
- Shimmer And Shine
- Lay There And Hate Me
- Why Must You Always Dress In Black
- Skin Thin
- Fly One Time
- Keep It Together (So I Can Fall Apart)
- Boots Like These
- The Word Suicide
- Faithfully Remain