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Cover Story [Issue # 19 ]
Ben Harper: Shooting for a Better Way

By Dean Truitt

Both Sides Of The Gun ( CD Virgin )

Ever since emerging onto the musical landscape with his debut release, Welcome to the Cruel World, singer-songwriter Ben Harper has channeled a wide array of musical styles to deliver heartfelt messages of protest, love, and empathy for the human condition and its challenges. What could be his most ambitious, sprawling effort to date, Both Sides of the Gun, finds the inventive multi-instrumentalist experimenting more than ever with diversity, largely because the 18-track opus allowed the musician a wider canvas on which to paint his lyrical portraits over a wash of sonic texture.

For most artists, creating a double album only two years after his last studio release would be a colossal achievement. However, Harper’s prolific artistry compels him to edit his work tirelessly. Speaking about the process of recording Both Sides of the Gun, the Pomona native admits, “I had no idea that I was going to make a double album. It wasn’t even on the map for me. I did have leftover stuff on this record, as well. So, the 18 songs is the abbreviated from the complete session. I finished another six or seven tunes. I know a couple of them we’re going to use as iTunes downloads, B-sides, things to send off with radio singles, EPs, and stuff like that.”

Never one to rest on his laurels, Harper also finds it surprising that people often comment about the eclectic mixture of material that comprises his albums. The masterful musician reveals, “In truth, I am a classical musician trapped in a slide guitar player.” Commenting on how he expands his range of material while still maintaining a focused effort, Harper surmises, “I think that just has to do with the individual’s voice or the group and style of songwriting and where it falls within the sequence of a record, as well as a willingness for fans to listen to different types of music. There’s a lot that goes into that. Most groups, when it comes to music, whether it’s The Beatles, The Stones, or U2, it’s all variations on one song. So, there’s going to be an interconnectedness no matter what.” In speaking about the common thread running though rather stylistically dissimilar tracks on his latest LP, he concludes, “So, ‘More Than Sorry’ is a variation of ‘Get It Like You Like It’ in its own right. Obviously, they’re different songs.”

Harper also notes that his penchant for crafting divergent material within the confines of one release was not always considered unusual. He reminisces, “Back in the day, nobody would point at me for being any different than anyone else as far as diversity goes ‘cause it was quite standard [to make contrastive albums]. You could have a ‘Wind Cries Mary’ and a ‘Purple Haze’ and nobody really got that angry. Like The White Album, God knows The Beatles mixed it up and that was their stock in trade, different musical diversity. [From Abbey Road], ‘Here Comes the Sun’ and [sings] ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”

Surprisingly, the composer is generally able to foresee many elements in the direction a song will lead him in terms of production and style. He offers, “I have a pretty good idea when I’m going in about how it should sound. I can hear a song in a finished form, not the finished form, kicking around in my head. So, that usually gets me. The way I hear the song gets me halfway there and what gets me home the rest of the way is the life it takes on while you’re trying to get to what you’re hearing in your head. It’s usually 50 percent, I can hear it, feel it, taste it and the other half is just improvisation.”

While many double albums can become too rambling, or Harper believes that certain recurring themes and album sequencing have much to do with the way the record will ultimately flow. As far as uniting the disparate elements of a far-reaching project, Harper reveals that certain songs will reflect other tracks in the collection. Using the sparse, introspective songs, “More Than Sorry” and “Crying Won’t Help You Now” as examples, he explains, “I don’t think they were written close together, but songs go good like the left and the right hand. Not necessarily in pairs, but in matches. Like ‘More Than Sorry’ and ‘Crying Won’t Help You Now,’ ‘Happy Everafter In Your Eyes’ and ‘Morning Yearning’ go together. ‘Black Rain’ and ‘Both Sides of the Gun’ go together. Sometimes they go in threes because ‘Better Way’ is probably also lumped in with that. ‘Get It Like You Like It’ and ‘Engraved Invitation,’ there’s certain matchings that go together, reasons why they can’t go back to back, and so on. That’s one way you can balance it out and find a good sequence of a record, knowing that songs have a likeness toward one another.”
Those who have experienced Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminals’ live performances they will recall moments of extended improvisation akin to the group’s shows. The concluding track of disc one, “Serve Your Soul,” has the feel of Led Zeppelin’s more ethereal, grinding work. The extended framework gives the maverick performer a chance to coax bluesy passion out of his slide guitar. Of the composition’s epic length, Harper admits, “I knew I had a few different movements for it, sort of like a classical piece, but in a rock style. I didn’t quite know each one was going to be that long. That’s one of the songs I didn’t hear it becoming how it did. The players and I just stretched everything out and by the time we hit the last note, we just looked at each other and said, ‘Well, let’s go check that out.’ And it ended up being that long. Of course, in the digital age, I could’ve edited the heck out of it, but I just let it be what it was in its natural state.”

Not only is the album sonically widespread, but it also ranges in the scope of message. One of the more sentimental songs on Both Sides of the Gun is the poignant “Never Leave Lonely Alone.” Of the haunting ballad’s genesis, Harper remembers, “I was just kicking [the feeling of] loneliness around and was talking with someone about when you walk into a movie theater and see someone by themselves. Or, if you’re by yourself, you sit alone. One time, a friend of mine walked into a movie theater and there was only one other person in there and they sat completely away from them. I was just talking about that. One of the saddest things in the world is to walk into a restaurant late at night and seeing people alone. Being on the road, you eat late after gigs. You pull into these truck stops or diners and you see a man or a woman sitting at the counter by themselves and it’s heartbreaking to see someone very, very old sitting all by themselves. There’s something desperate about it and I just tried to put that to music.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the singer’s bitter response to the government’s inability to provide immediate relief for Hurricane Katrina victims. With an aggressive string arrangement and a driving clavinet riff, the track could sit alongside the material on Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book. With bitter barbs aimed at the administration and sympathy for the victims, the artist’s rant pulls no punches in its harsh critique. Not one to reinterpret his original message of scathing dissent, Harper unapologetically quips, “The song is a statement. Everything I can say about the statement is not as direct as I said in the statement itself in the song. That’s what I want to get out and say, as direct a way as possible.”
While the CD is rife with angst, Harper notes that he does not want the tone of the work to be one of animosity. The opening track, “Better Way,” temarks some hope in the face of adversity. He offers, “It was important to me that there was optimism with an album title like Both Sides of the Gun. I wanted that to be more than just a literal connotation.” Over a blanket of Eastern instrumentation, elegiac strings, and percolating percussion, Harper’s chorus refrain repeatedly incants, “I believe in a better way.”

For existing fans of Ben Harper, Both Sides of the Gun will be a welcome delight in their growing arsenal of material. With all his trademark grit and wit, the artist has outdone himself as both musician and messenger. The double album also serves as an excellent introduction to Harper’s music because it spans dynamic range and has something for everyone. Ultimately, Ben Harper proves once again that he continues to push his personal boundaries of inspired creativity.

Both Sides Of The Gun

Shooting for a Better Way Ben Harper Both Sides Of The Gun

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