Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals: Call It What It Is

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Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals
Call It What It Is
(Stax)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

It’s encouraging to hear that someone other than Neil Young is still carrying the torch for contemporary artists lashing out at social and political injustices, just like in the good old ‘60s. While Young’s recent The Monsanto Years release wasn’t exactly up to his “Ohio” peak period, it at least attempted to use music to deliver a message on a topic he felt was unfairly ignored. So it’s reassuring that Ben Harper’s reunion with his Innocent Criminals backing band – the first time on an album in nearly a decade – also contains some of his most overtly demonstrative statements.

Better still, it’s accomplished music that’s driving, soulful, heartfelt… not just a skeleton to hang lyrics on. Although Harper can leans towards the simplistic, repeating “I remember when sex was dirty and the air was clean” against a chugging cowbell glam-rock beat, the rest of the album lightens the verbal and musical touch substantially. As usual, it’s impossible to pigeonhole Harper’s sound as he shifts from percussive world beat on “How Dark Is Gone,” to “Shine”’s sunny pop, the tough roots/rock/reggae of “Finding Our Way” and the Marvin Gaye-influenced soul of the sweet R&B “Bones.” On the folksy “Dance Like Fire,” Harper finds his groove with social commentary (“the real revolutionary/ won’t hide in his home”) and a melody with a hook as catchy as any he has written.

He goes down to the Delta with his distinctive slide on the haunting solo performance “All That Has Grown” and rocks out with an edgy electric lick on the tough, propulsive “Pink Balloon,” the disc’s most sexually-infused moment. Harper balances introspection as on the bittersweet “Goodbye To You,” with more politicized leanings throughout these 11 robust tracks. Not only is this a treat for longtime fans, but hopefully a sign for others to take Harper’s lead, creating relevant, incisive songs that are lyrically, musically and philosophically as inspirational and provocative as those here.