Diamonds on the Inside – Ben Harper
Virgin Records 7243 5 80640 2 5
Ben Harper clearly proved himself to be a unique voice with the release
of his first album, Welcome to the Cruel World, in 1994. On Cruel
Ben opened himself up and presented – to those who would listen – his
thoughts on spirituality, race, and relationships. There was something
pure and simple about his music — his voice had an almost fragile
quality to it, not afraid to let it crack; his choice of guitars were
antique Weissenborns, simple acoustic instruments played across his lap;
and his accompaniment was an understated bass line and some percussion.
These qualities combined to create incredibly moving music. Building off
influences the likes of Marley, Hendrix, and Gaye, Ben was still able
form his own unique sound.
As Ben's popularity began to increase, though, it seems as though he
began to change that sound to fit his surroundings. By the time he released
third album, The Will to Live, he had begun to trade in his
for double-necked electrical guitars, and songs that would have found
power in an emotional simplicity now became arena rockers. And it was
almost too much. Part of the beauty of Ben is that he can carry the
passion of a song through his voice and an acoustic instrument. It was
almost as though he was over-compensating, and it seemed to effect his
music. With Diamonds On the Inside, Ben Harper has presented his
listeners with fourteen unique songs to sample, each with a different
sound. Rather than focusing on the simplicity of acoustic music, or the
wash of electric guitars, Ben seems to focus on the layering sounds for
this album. With the opening organ sounds of "My Own Two Hands" (a song
that has been a part of Ben's catalog for eight years, and was revamped
for this album), an immediate vision of The Wailers comes to mind — and
one gets the feeling that this is a different album for Ben.
There is a fine line between building off of one's influences and
sounding derivative. While Ben clearly put much care into this
self-produced album, he seems to waiver on some songs on this album —
much like with his nod to Marley on the opening track, Ben is found
wearing his influences on his sleeve. While "Brown Eyed Blues" is a
nicely-crafted funk number – complete with some Les Claypool-like bass
from Juan Nelson – "Bring the Funk" is somewhat generic. "Stay black/stay
white/stay brown/just get on down/bring the funk/got to bring the funk"
— this could have been written by any George Clinton-influenced big
band. The song "Temporary Remedy" is clearly influenced by Southern rock.
But it is not as though Ben is ignorant to his influences shining
through — Temporary Remedy begins with "I killed a snake with a Bible/I
was living a Johnny Cash song/I'm afraid for this, I might be liable/so
it's best I be moving along."
Ben Harper is clearly more successful when he does move along, fusing
his own voice with those who came before him, rather than simply
rehashing his influences. Layers of piano, strings, and background
voices are joined with a box of rocks, a church organ, a Thiele tongue
drum, all to create a subtle beauty infused with history. Leon Mobley
simply shakes a box of rocks and the vision of stomping feet in gravel
is created. The delicate "plinkings" of the tongue drum on "Blessed to Be
a Witness" are coupled with the angelic voices of Ladysmith Black
Mambazo – who back Ben on "Picture of Jesus" – to create a connection to
traditional African music. "When She Believes" – with its strings, horns,
and accordion – gives the listener a feeling of being at a French cafe.
With a song like "Amen Omen", Ben proves that he can produce powerful
music by simply layering piano, strings, and a chorus — he does not need
such overt devices as a heavy drum beat and the electric guitar utilized
in "Temporary Remedy". It is not a coincidence that the songs that do not
feel overworked are the songs that are the most personal — it is in the
simplicity of music that the beauty comes through. On "Picture of Jesus",
the only instruments are the voices of Ben and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
That is all that he needs.