Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Kat's Korner: Both Sides of the Coin -- Ben Harper's Both Sides of The Gun vs. The Living Room Tour

Kat: "Where's the review?" has been a popular question. Much promised and long delayed --
a few have started to think I didn't like Ben Harper's Both Sides of The Gun. I don't like the album, I love it.

But it turns out there was a problem. A reason for the delay. Elaine and C.I. helped me figure out what was causing me the problem. It has to do with whether or not you stand for something or just pretend to when things are easy.

See Both Sides of The Gun is a great album. The second disc rocks, no question. The first disc, which I listen to equally as much, is a quieter sound. Elaine and I were speaking of Darfur and then an hour or so later I phoned C.I. and, at that point, wasn't even thinking of Ben Harper when C.I. mentioned "Peace in the Valley."

That's the problem. Both Sides of The Gun is the work of an artist. It's the work of an artist who's grappling with the world we live in. An artist who believes in a "Better Way" as the first track on disc two notes.

And disc one? Reminds me of Carole King.

Carole King back when she had principles.

I loathed The Living Room Tour. I loathed it for the fact that she destroyed the Toni Wine & Carole King favorite "Sweet Seasons" by changing the words to "Sometimes you win/ Sometimes you win." Politicians may prefer to hear that but does Carole really think her own audience isn't damn well aware of loss?

The Living Room Tour is a piece of crap. It goes beyond her screwing over classics to please/appease politicians. It goes beyond her vague statements that can be read as "Rally 'Round the Bully Boy" or "Well, we're there now." All the more embarrassing when even Paul McCartney has stopped drinking the Kool-Aid.

The problem with The Living Room Tour is you realize Carole King may be desperate for a buck (or attention) and willing to sell out everything she believed in. (Or too scared to sing of what she so often did in other times.) She does record "Peace in the Valley" on The Living Room Tour and offers an embarrassingly bland comment. And that's really it. She's trotting out the love songs (hits and misses) and if she thinks anyone's fooled that "Being At War With Each Other" is a 'statement' on the war she's the fool because those of us who remember the song when it first appeared know exactly what it's about (racism in this country).

Carole King spent the 60s churning out hits for others. She didn't take a serious stab at recordings (forget "It Might As Well Rain Until September" and other one-offs) until 1968 with The City. That group's album features a New York City woman trying to act like a hippie. Which is probably why Lou Adler, of the Mamas and the Papas fame, produced it and her solo work for years. If you're hoping to find a peace song on the album, forget it. She's high . . . on the land.

For years, I'm a long time Carole King listener, she's been trashed by some critics as a "Pollyanna." I never saw it that way but understood the position that critics were trashing. I don't know that she still maintains that position. Or, in fact, if she ever really did.

Yes, she made generic statements that could be read to be about Vietnam and the mood of the country on her first solo album Writer (1970). On the break-through follow up (Tapestry), "Smack Water Jack" could be read as a statement against the bullies Nixon, et al. She campaigned for George McGovern. But 1973's Fantasy contained no real statement on the war. It did allow her to pretend to be someone else.

That's key to the type of writer King started out as. She wrote for others. (With her husband, lyricist Gerry Goffin.) They would try to figure out a way to write the next Drifters' hit based on the last hit they'd had. It was pretend time. Some great work came out of that period.

But what Living Room finally drives home is that the whole thing, the entire career, may have been pretend. That's why I hated it so much. 1975, when it would have been safe for our peaceful, easy feeling King to make a statement regarding Watergate or Vietnam, she's off doing a children's album (Really Rosie). Before that, when record buyers had turned against the war but elites and pols still hadn't in large numbers, she was offering her "Been to Canaan" type songs (toss in "Brother, Brother"). They gave the appearance of someone with beliefs. But maybe someone with real beliefs would have actually written about what was going on in the country? So the army withdrew from Vietnam and suddenly King had a lot to say. Nothing specific but more on the mark than anything she'd written (or recorded in cases where she recorded others' lyrics) while the war was raging.

This is the "One to One" period. The "One Small Voice" period. The "A Time Gone By" period. She was being called Pollyanna constantly. I wonder now if I was wrong to defend her -- and think others might have been wrong to attack her as a Pollyanna for different reasons than I had thought at the time. Now it looks like it may have all been an act.

"What will the kids buy?" she and others who wrote songs in the 60s would ask and then try to write that in the style of a popular group. I'm now wondering if she wasn't doing that her entire damn career.

In 1993, when it was cool to be political for some in music, she beefed up her sound on Colour of Your Dreams and actually had some concrete statements (such as in "Friday's Tie-Dye Nightmare"). Our Queen of Peace continued her reign in song as late as July 2001 when she put out Love Makes The World ("go round," if you don't know the title track off the album).

So let's be really clear, Carole King sat out the sixties (chronological sixties) and when the seventies rolled around, there she was a solo, writing non-specific evocations of peace, brotherhood (never sisterhood) and the like. She continued that throughout her career. Stopping only after 9/11.

I guess it really did change everything. It certainly changed a Carole King recording as mealy mouth statements cancelled out anything a live version of "Peace In the Valley" might have offered (however weak). That's really it for the piece of crap, double disc Living Room. King would be smart to figure out what happened? Was she too scared to offer one of her peace songs? (This is, after all, the woman who rarely performs songs by others but went all over California in the nineties singing Patti Smith's "People Have The Power.") Was she, not scared, but afraid it wouldn't reach her perceived market? (Don Kirshner would be so proud if she instilled that.) Did she decide war was the answer after all? Or was she pretending (and therefore wasting everyone's time) with all those musings on the state of peace and the state of man (after we withdrew from Vietnam)?

Disc one of Both Sides of The Gun is the disc Carole King should have released last year. In vocal tone, in topic, it's exploring things not dissimilar from what was the hallmark in King's work.

"Morning Yearning" has all the soft sexuality King could dream of. But Ben Harper's the one singing it and the one writing it.

a finger's touch upon my lips
it's a morning yearning
pull the curtains shut,
try to keep it dark
but the sun is burning

The guitar playing on this and the other songs is as remarkable as King's piano playing on Tapestry. There are figures and fills. It's not just a chord that lays there, droning on. For nine songs, the first disc takes you to a place where there's time to stop and think, where there's a need to stop and think. It breathes. The accompaniment does more than provide the main line of the melody. Light the candles, lay on the floor and think or light the candles, lay on the floor and make out. This is a wonderful disc. The song that nails it for me is "More Than Sorry:"

hasn't been so good to me
stepped out into the night
back against the moon
i saw ten thousand hands with candlelight
we all think that we're right
it's hard to tell
if the night is full of hope or doom

The thing that kills me is that this could have been written and sung by Carole King -- if she hadn't shown up with a thematic case of laryngitis in her Living Room. I don't know that it could have sounded this well due to the fact that so much of her work post Tapestry had musical arrangements that sounded like first attempts as opposed to the polished work of a pro. But in terms of themes, in terms of vocals, Carole could have made this album or one damn well similar.

Disc two kicks things off with "Better Way" which everyone rushes to tell you is "like the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows." Me? Musically, I'm hearing the Bangles' "In Your Room." Not an insult. I had high hopes for what ended up being the break up album when "In Your Room" came out. Seemed like they might be returning to the life of "James" and "Hero Takes A Fall" and leaving behind the generic pop-sound that finally brought them fame. Lyrically, Harper's "Better Way" is several notches above "In Your Room" but it's not "Tomorrow Never Knows." I always wonder when someone raves over John Lennon's lyrics in that song if they're aware he cribbed from Tibetan Book of the Dead. It often seems that they aren't. (Similarly, in "Engraved Invitiation," I hear more of a nod to the music of "Honky Tonk Women" or "Tumbling Dice" than the other Rolling Stones' songs that some critics keep saying it sounds "just like.")

While "Better Way" is a fun track that has a point of view, "Both Sides of the Gun" is everything that a song commenting on the world today should strive for. We are living, Harper sings, on both sides. We are under a government pointing the gun outside the United States and within. It is "rotten to the core" with "one foot in the grave and the other on the flag." In every measure of the song, the music runs and then clomps perfectly capturing the mood occupying our nation when led by a "one dimensional fool in a three dimensional world."

"Black Rain" addresses the government's non-response to Hurricane Katrina:

you don't fight for us
but expect us to die for you
you have no sympathy for us
still i cry for you
you may kill the revolutionary
but the revolution you can never bury

Both Sides of The Gun is two discs of strong music about the state of the world, about our humanity (which Harper obviously believes we still have) and much more. The second disc is for rocking out but carries the theme on through.

I remember a time gone by
When peace and hope and dreams were high
We followed inner visions and touched the sky
Now we who still believe won't let them die.

Though the lyrics above would fit perfectly, that's not from Both Sides of The Gun. It's from Carole King's title track to Time Gone By (1979). Apparently, it's real easy to make promises and talk peace when the nation's not at war. It's apparently equally easy to ditch that attitude when it's time to rally 'round the Bully.

Carole would be smart to forget the Living Room and get back in the studio quickly because her live album is offensive on so many levels but mainly because it betrays her entire career. Put up or shut up. Otherwise admit that either you never believed in those lyrics -- what some called "drippy" and "Hallmark" lyrics -- or that 9/11 transformed you into a hawk.

Her live album is as disgraceful as if Judy Collins, one day, decided, "I know I liked the environment but I think I'll start recording songs in praise of DDT now." Her listeners would balk. Carole's heavily promoted (on TV) album crashed and burned quickly once people heard it and word of mouth got out on it. From the "peace queen," it would have been disgusting in 2003 or 2004. Coming after Green Day, the Rolling Stones, Cowboy Junkies, Dolly Parton, Bright Eyes, Etta James and others stepped up to the plate, Living Room is disgusting and cowardly.

Ben Harper, in scope, has always struck me as one of the musical children of Carole King. The "child" has managed to do what the parent couldn't or wouldn't. Take ideas that were espoused in peace time and stuck by them. There's not a day that's gone by where I haven't played Both Sides of The Gun at least once. (I still haven't listened to the bonus disc.) It's become a staple. Living Room has sat on the shelf since I wrote the review (July 19, 2005). Until I needed to confirm what I finally grasped, there was no need to listen to it. Having confirmed it, it'll go back on the shelf and if I weren't a Carole King fan (previous work), it would go in the trash. Both Sides of The Gun will go in your CD player and stay there.