Even as he invokes folks such as Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix, Ben Harper turns rock cliches inside out until they mean something new again. The Black Crowes-damaged title track of Harper’s fifth studio album — a lush sweep of twelve-string and pedal steel guitars — is sweeter than ninety percent of the cock rock that it echoes. Often, when Harper seems to be singing about some spangly rock chick, he’s crooning about the Queen of Heaven — at least that’s the case with “When She Believes,” a lullaby that’s all accordions, harps and fuzzy-blanket chords.
Harper works out of a tradition that is older than rock: the African-American church and its more secular members’ tradition of blending gospel righteousness with pop grooves. “Brown Eyed Blues” is good wah-wah funk, but it’s Harper’s quavering, weak-with-lust vocal that makes it irresistible. He understands that pop music isn’t just a parade of brand-new things — it’s about reinvention, too.
On Diamonds on the Inside, Harper does better than that: He blows up like an inheritor and improves upon his influences with a few jewels of unique and exquisitely tender rock & roll.