Ben Harper | Winter is for Lovers | (Anti-)
3 out of 5 stars
It’s not clear if this solo guitar instrumental album was created during the pandemic, but it’s a logical result of it nonetheless. No studio needed, no band, producer, engineers, overdubs… not even a microphone for voice. Just Ben Harper, alone with his Monteleone lap steel.
The advance notes describe the sound as “meditative and affecting,” which pretty much nails it. Harper had been taught finger picking by Taj Mahal and then lap steel from Chris Darrow of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Those lessons are put to use decades later on these 15 brief tracks that add up to just over a half hour of music.
Each is named for a city that inspired Harper, and in most cases, the piece corresponds somewhat to the music you might hear there. Hence titles such as “Istanbul,” “Lebanon,” “London,” “Islip,” “Paris” etc. Despite the album’s chilly seasonal name and black and white cover photo of Harper on a snowy street, the sound is as warm and inviting as a steamy cup of hot chocolate on a cold night. For better or worse, every track is smooth and inviting, which is fine for a disc that only runs a half hour but would get boring if extended any longer.
There are clear connections to early Leo Kottke, John Fahey and Ry Cooder’s soundtrack work. The selections with recognizable melodies, such as all 47 seconds of “Brittany,” the waltz time “Inland Empire” and the Jorma Kaukonen-styled “Bizanet,” are the most memorable. Others where Harper seems to be improvising without much structure are less successful, though not alienating.
Apparently these tunes are somehow connected thematically to create a conceptual narrative over and above their city-centric titles, but that’s hard to grasp. Give Harper credit for creating something pretty far outside of the rocking/world music/soul he’s been playing since his 1994 debut.
Winter Is for Lovers is clearly a personal project he made for himself, not for his fan base or record sales. As such, it’s a lovely, sweet, immaculately recorded and performed set perfect for Sunday morning coffee, regardless of the season or city.