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Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals

Burn to Shine VirginUnlike most guitar heroes, Ben Harper concentrates on his songs -- crosses between old blues and classic rock with hints of folk and country -- not on his solos. Which makes his solos sound all the better once he starts tearing it up. Part acid rocker, part balladeer, part Rastaman, Harper is also blessed with an expressive, elastic voice that allows him to vary the intensity of his songs.

The result is a string of albums that has flashes of grungy blues tempered with introspective, acoustic soul. Harper's fourth record, Burn to Shine, is the first with his backing band credited, but it's still typically Harper-esque. That he can maneuver from a Dixieland-flavored tune ("Suzie Blue") to a beatbox song on the next track ("Steal My Kisses") without coming off as pretentious shows just how comfortable Harper is as a chameleon. He fits in at a metal festival in Europe, the H.O.R.D.E. tour in America and on records by folkster trip-hoppers such as Beth Orton and such master bluesmen as John Lee Hooker.

Growing up in Claremont, California, an hour outside of Los Angeles, Harper learned to play and repair instruments at his grandfather's music store. It was there that he discovered what would become his primary instrument, an obscure variation on the lap steel, the lap slide guitar. This six-string offers a unique, often sad texture but has enough character to stay warm when Harper turns up the volume and adds distortion.

Burn to Shine's strengths are the up-tempo Southern blues songs. Despite his California upbringing, Harper knows that the blues comes from the South. The title track even has a hint of gospel, in the swinging "oohs" of the background vocals. It's a driving song with bassist Juan Nelson taking full advantage of the loose groove, adding fills to Harper's precise slide runs.

Given the hints of New Orleans flavor in "Suzie Blue," the clarinet and trombone accompanying Harper's bayou strumming are merely logical extensions. Still, few artists could put that song side by side with something like the heavy, spooky "Please Bleed" and not have it interrupt the flow of the record. "Bleed" is the emotional highlight of the disc. As Harper plucks a crossroads lick from his guitar and begs a bad lover to feel something, anything, the band stays low-key until the screaming chorus. Harper pours on the distortion while purring the song title, and percussionist David Leach knocks out quick bongo accents. Harper's going-down-in-flames solo is brief and filled with turmoil, and comes back with loads of fury at the end, when Harper sings, "Good lovers make great enemies."

Harper is one of those artists who create a body of work that seems to operate outside of current music trends. Unfortunately his well-rounded and diverse styles may prevent him from reaching a wide audience (though he does well in Europe). Which is too bad. At the very least he's the only artist who can craft touching songs, play the guitar in a unique style and use himself as a human beatbox. -- David Simutis Ben Harper performs Friday, November 19, at the Aerial Theater, 520 Texas. Call (713)629-3700 for more information.

 
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