Both Sides of the Gun is Ben Harper’s first solo album in a long time. His previous release was There will be a Light and was recorded with the Blind Boys of Alabama. This album had a particularly non-Harperesque sound and was radically different to anything that Ben Harper had done in the past. In many ways ‘Both Sides of the Gun’ is a return to his ‘own’ music.
Ben Harper has presented us, the buying public, with a double album of songs. The first CD is almost solo acoustic, while the second CD has a fuller band backing. Perhaps this is meant to present both sides of a gun? Who knows. It certainly is his most substantial album since the release of his double live CD, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals Live from Mars.
Although not completely solo acoustic, the first CD is a stripped down affair. Acoustic guitar, jazzy drums, soft voice and a remarkable use of classical musical instruments: violin, cello, viola. This gives the songs a distinctly sixties feel to them. Standouts on this CD are the fabulous ‘Morning Yearning’ where Ben Harper manages to portray so much more intensity and feeling than the lyrics on paper would suggest. His warm voice is almost perfect and a timely reminder of why so many appreciate Ben Harper in the first place.
The second song on the first CD is equally impressive, ‘Waiting for You’ is more upbeat but still manages to keep it’s laid back vibe. It almost sounds like one of the Stones’ more soft 1960s songs. ‘Reason to Mourn’ is perhaps the song which sounds like it has been influenced by the gospel songs he sang with the Blind Boys of Alabama. It too uses the classical musical instruments to great effect and never veers into the distasteful or overbearing sound that this can sometimes produce. However, as good as the last songs may be, I feel that much the rest of the acoustic album is ‘filler’. The songs simply fail to grab my attention. This is made more the frustrating when one considers the quality of some of the songs on offer. The second CD, which presents a rockier side to Ben Harper, does not suffer from the same problems however.
‘Better Way’ uses another instrument much ignored since the 1960s (except for a mini-revivial based around Kula Shaker), the sitar. It is used to great effect and introduces the song, giving it a mystical feel and an underlying driving force. This is ignored as soon as the lap guitar kicks in with a brilliant solo. The song as a whole is a great introduction to the second CD and comes as a great shock after the first CD of acoustic songs.
‘Both Sides of the Gun’ is a funky, groovy song with a brilliant organ solo. At times it sounds like Stevie Wonder. ‘Engraved Reputation’ sounds like the Stones circa early1970s with dirty guitar licks and mean solos. ‘Black Rain’ sees Ben Harper revisit his protest side and has written a song on the crisis in New Orleans. This is Ben Harper as the angry musician and I believe perhaps the best side of his musical character. ‘Gather Round the Stone’ is very gospel inspired. ‘Please Don’t Talk About Murder While I’m Eating’ sees Ben Harper revisit ‘Excuse me Mr’ from earlier albums and is a fuck you song, an excellent one at that. ‘The Way You Found Me’ is a new musical direction for Harper with Jazzy beat and smooth vocals. I’m not entirely sure that it was necessary on such a varied collection of songs. ‘Serve Your Soul’ closes the album. This song is building on what made Ben Harper famous in the first place, Pearl Jam-esque guitar with more emotion and sensitivity. It is an excellent song and an excellent way to finish the record.
Overall Ben Harper has delivered a good record. However, I feel that it would have been much stronger had it been reigned in and released as a 12-14 songs single record. The quality would have remained consistent. However, as it stands it is still a timely reminder of Ben Harper’s evident musical ability and songwriting skills. In a world where Jack Johnson is revered as some kind of alternative singer-songwriter, we can be thankful that Ben Harper has come back to put him in his place.