NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, "Call It What It Is" (Stax Records)
Ben Harper is back with the best band he's ever sung with, delivering strong new material with a group that has always known when to play hard and when to hang back.
Coming on the heels of a 2015 tour with the Innocent Criminals, Harper and the band have recorded 11 new songs that stay true to their eclectic past. They've done so on Stax Records, which isn't the same outfit it was in its Memphis heyday, when Otis Redding, Booker T and the M.G.'s and Isaac Hayes were breaking barriers of both genre and quality.
Harper's new songs don't attain those stratospheric levels of achievement, but he and the band don't dishonor the legacy as they range comfortably from political diatribes to love songs to forceful rock and roll.
The title cut, "Call It What It Is," takes an angry swing at the spate of recent shootings of young black men, and if the message isn't wildly original — it's still murder, that's the point — Harper delivers it with plenty of feeling.
The common thread throughout the album is Harper's voice, one of the most versatile and sensitive of the last three decades. It has always been what sets his work apart.
He's in fine form on the opener, "When Sex Was Dirty," with a hint of Clash-influenced chant-rock, but really shines on "Deeper and Deeper," the kind of aching, wistful ballad that he has always sung with more passion that just about anyone else around.
It's Ben Harper at his best — helped along by a band that has always known how to complement his moods.