Monday, May 30, 2011

Kat's Korner: It was nothing, he insisted loudly

Kat: Somewhere after the first listen of Ben Harper's latest Give Till It's Gone , I knew I'd had enough of Ben in this phase. Though one of my all time favorites, I'm just not willing to spend at a night at the bar with him as he tries to figure out what he thinks or what he wants.


On a personal level, I'm not really big on taking sides in a break up and, honestly, offended for Laura Dern by a lot of the lyrics. Jackson Browne has often noted the power the song writer has and feels he's misused it in "Ready Or Not" by going for a joke. I wish Ben had gone for a joke, I really do. It would have lightened the mood. Instead, my takeaway -- based on what's there on the album -- was, "This is a man who both loves and hates his ex and can't figure out which he feels more but, worse, can't stop talking about her even when he believes he's moved on to another subject."

I didn't expect it to be 'the break up' album. A few weeks back, when his site offered a free download of "Rock N' Roll Is Free," I downloaded. It was an uptempo song, a little light on the music,but Ben had a strong vocal. So I was eager to see how he would pursue that new sound on the album. Two songs in, I realized that I'd downloaded a break up album.

The break up has spawned many great songs. Mick Jagger, for example, has turned out many bitchy lyrics over break ups which have entered the rock canon (such as his revenge fantasy "Under My Thumb" -- music by Keith Richards). And, of course, Carly Simon's "It Happens Every Day" remains as heartbreaking as it was when it appeared on her first album of her own songs after she and James Taylor divorced. Another rock and roll couple, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, offered bookend versions of their breakup on Fleetwood Mac's classic album Rumors (Stevie's account was "Dreams," Lindsey's was "Go Your Own Way").

Ben's done nothing like that on this album.

I picked this up assuming it was a rock album and that Ben would explore some guitar sounds as he usually does on these in-between projects and save the great revelations (musical and lyrical) for his next big project. (The classic and career defining Both Sides Of The Gun was his last big project.) I also hadn't been following any coverage of the break up. I'd heard that he and Laura Dern had broken up once, on the radio, when we were speaking in Georgia, I think. And then, I read in a regional newspaper somewhere -- in the front section, the inside gossip page -- that there were rumors that they were trying to work it out. I didn't see any of it as my business and didn't give it much thought.

I think Laura's a powerful actress and I'm a huge fan of Ben's but whether they're together or not really isn't a factor in my life.

It's clearly a huge factor in Ben's life. And while that's not surprising, what is surprising is that he apparently believes he's written an album that says something. Why he believes that, I have no idea.

Speaking with Mike Ragogna (Huffington Post), Ben was asked if he was trying for a song cycle on this album and he replied no, "but I've got to tell you, I'm making this up as I go along." It shows. It really shows.

And I waited to see if anyone else felt that way but instead he's gotten praise. Brief praise to be sure. For example, when a newspaper 'review' is a whole paragraph, they're really not praising you no matter how often they fit "great" into that small, single paragraph. While I will allow that Ben's found new shades in his vocals (and that's nothing minor, to be sure), I am amazed at the tin-eared critics who repeatedly insist that the music 'swaggers' -- especially since they're not referring to the music written by Ben but the playing of what he wrote. The playing on this album is awful. It's miked poorly and it sound sterile. "Feel Love" is recorded so shoddy, for example, that it could be mistaken as the new single from Brit-popper Mika.

"I'm making this up as I go along," he said and it really shows.

And maybe instead of singing on "Pray That Our Love Sees The Dawn," Jackson Browne could have told him, "Ben, there's no album here."

There's not.

Ben has no idea what he feels in these songs and they veer from one emotion to another and mostly pretend to be about things other than a break up. But in the context of the album, even "Rock N' Roll Is Free" suddenly becomes about the break up and Ben becomes the guy on the rebound, the date from hell who can't stop talking about his ex while convinced he's not doing that.

There are two ways to go with art when it comes to break ups, you can wait some time for a sense of perspective to set in or you can admit you don't have a clue and explore your feelings. That latter approach gave Joni Mitchell's rock classic Blue its naked beauty.

Ben's ignored both paths because he doesn't seem to grasp how obsessed he's become. But the listener should grasp it very quickly. And maybe, unlike me, they'll enjoy what is the equivalent of being their for your drunken pal at the bar who rails about the recent break up one moment and then insists it doesn't matter the next. But, I mean, I'll do that for my friend Maggie (and know she'd do the same for me) but Ben Harper's not my best friend.

And as an artist, he's taken liberties with our relationship. It works like this, he writes songs, records them and then markets them and I buy them. (I've bought everything so far and will be buying the next album as well.) Now if, in a concert, he wants some audience participation, I'm happy to belt out the chorus of "Diamonds On The Inside" with everyone else in the stadium. And I'd certainly stop if I saw him on the side of the road with a flat. (While I can change a tire, I'd first try a can of Fix A Flat.)

But the idea that I'm going to pay for him to pretend to himself (and to me) that nothing just happened while every vocal and a handful of lyrics in every song scream otherwise? If I wanted faux feelings and pretense, I'd stock my collection with American Idol winners.

[Illustration by Betty's oldest son.]