Burn to Shine
WHETHER BEN HARPER is staying true to his vision or merely playing it safe, his fourth album sticks to the formula of the previous two, alternating soulful, blues-based fuzz with gentle folk ballads. Burn to Shine nevertheless has moments of real inspiration, if only when its creator flirts with the unfamiliar. "Suzie Blue" is a joyous Dixieland romp that weds Harper's trembling tenor to some nifty noodling from the Real Time Jazz Band. "Steal My Kisses" grooves in an oddly countrified funk vein, propelled by Juan Nelson's subtle bass work and Dean Butterworth's crisp drumming. Harper's burnished voice, still one of the loveliest in rock, rises to a crystalline falsetto for "The Woman in You," a weepy slow burner that supersizes into a Kravitzian anthem.
The rest of the album is all very tasteful, with Harper playing a variety of guitars (including his beloved Weissenborn) and never failing to find intriguing instrumentation for his songs. But there's nothing here fans won't find disconcertingly familiar. Perhaps the studio just isn't Harper's bag anymore. In concert, he comes across as nearly possessed, playing loose and hard, allowing for plenty of rollicking, improvised jams. It's this sort of raw intensity that's lacking here, perhaps a sign that a live album would be the next logical step.