Album Reviews: Both Sides of the Gun by Ben HarperTaking a page from the Foo Fighters playbook, King of Jam and Surf Ben Harper believes he is writing music so polarized that it requires physical separation; despite a total running time of around an hour, Both Sides of the Gun is split onto two discs -- one "hard" and one "soft."
Harper especially seems to be having fun during the "noisy" disc, which ranges from vintage Stones to smoky be-bop. While he's singled out the blues-biting "Get It Like You Like It" as a Stones "parody," the rollicking "Engraved Invitation" bears just as many fingerprints, particularly on the Richards-y lead riff and the rowdy group singalong in the chorus. The party kicks off with the Eastern-tinged, hand percussion-propelled "Better Way," a sunny anthem that would be just as at home blaring out of a freshman's dorm speakers as providing an entrance for the keynote speaker at the next Democratic National Convention. The rambling psychedelic barnburner "Serve Your Soul" seems tailormade for Bonnaroo, with Harper uncorking some face-melting riffs that would turn the heads of any Phish fan or Deadhead.
Behind the good time vibes, though, Harper is plenty pissed -- and even though his ode to the downtrodden and forgotten of New Orleans (the angrily funky "Black Rain") doesn't beg for repeat listens, passion is always better than its substitute.
The softer album is more flawed -- or at least more forgettable. It's a perfectly pleasant choice for baristas looking to program their coffeehouse stereos, but the songs will have a very hard time making the cut for listeners with crowded and competitive iPods. Harper does this sort of stuff well enough, but it's done better by Amos Lee, among others. The soft disc presents two styles; the first is simple and stripped-down, with Harper singing in a fragile falsetto over prettily plucked acoustic guitars ("More Than Sorry"). The other -- less enjoyable -- features busy, cinematic arrangements ("Waiting For You," "Happy Everafter In Your Eyes"). This speaks to a greater problem with Harper's work in general; he's very well respected by fans and peers, his songs are almost always solid and unobjectionable, but he is also -- elephant in the room here -- often pretty boring. Both Sides of the Gun, unfortunately, includes that side, too. - Adam McKibbin, The Red Alert
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