Ben Harper’s music has always been uplifting. Buoyed by Harper’s righteous slide, his melodies often seem snatched out of church, funked up and rocked out but keeping the gospel feel alive while repackaging it for a secular audience. Harper can also rip it up with some raucous blues and mellow on down with folky offerings as well.
His delivery may be mellow, but his message is often anything but. Even on his last effort, 2014’s Childhood Home, a collaboration with his mother Ellen, those memories were bittersweet at best. Ellen’s song contributions qualify as protest songs, railing about Monsanto ruining farming and developers paving over the world. Harper is no stranger to protest as well, involved in 2004’s Vote For Change campaign to get swing state voters to the polls, and is an outspoken member of the No Nukes movement, reviving Buffalo Springfield’s epic protest song “For What It’s Worth” in 2007.
His latest release has him on the front lines once again. On the title cut, he labels the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Ezell Ford, Michael Brown “and so many more” as murder. “There’s good cops and bad cops/White cops and black cops/Got to call it what it is/Murder.” There’s no mellow here, in the music or the message. Dark and foreboding, Harper is a preacher raging against governmental madness and police brutality.
But its not all so serious. The new record is a celebration and a reunion. Harper last played a show with the Innocent Criminals seven years ago, and 8 years have passed since they released an album together. You’d never know it. They still sound family tight, arena-rocking on “I Remember When Sex Was Dirty” with its singalong na-na-na chorus, recalling the days when “the air was clean, everything worth knowing was in a magazine and marijuana was against the law.”
Harper pokes a toe into Princely waters on “Pink Balloon,” an offering of squeaky, wiggly, percussive funk.
But it’s “Shine” that lights this latest release up in vintage Harper/Criminals fashion, influenced by Stax funk and infused with Harper’s signature bounce and glide.
It’s a triumphant return for the Criminals, and another chapter in the ongoing evolution of Ben Harper’s career, a never-ending magical mystery tour.