On paper, it reads like a self-conscious exercise in antique cool and classic-rock righteousness. Singer-guitarist-songwriter Ben Harper and his band the Innocent Criminals — guitarist Michael Ward, bassist Juan Nelson, keyboard player Jason Yates, drummer Oliver Charles and percussionist Leon Mobley — recorded the eleven songs on Lifeline, Harper’s eighth studio album, live in a Paris studio, straight to analog tape, in seven days flat. But the execution is a relief. The performances sound confident and natural, not forced, lazy or merely naked. And the simple attractions in the modest arrangements — the quick electric strumming that fuels “Put It on Me,” like that rhythm-guitar figure in Van Morrison’s “Domino”; the repetitive, climbing plea in the Stax-ballad-style chorus of “Heart of Matters” — hold up, even bloom, with repeated listening.
There are plenty of reasons why rock stars, especially those remaining few with major-label deals, rarely make albums like this one anymore. It is too much trouble — you have to be ready. (Harper and his band rehearsed this material daily on tour, during soundchecks.) And it is risky. Perfection comes easy with ProTools — and there is a knack to recognizing the accidental beauty of mistakes. But Harper was born to make records like Lifeline. He sings in a grainy tenor of surprising range — from the hallelujah highs of “Say You Will” to the deep, worried breaths in “Younger Than Today” — that needs little dressing and has all the swagger needed to carry the battle in this album’s first song, “Fight Outta You.” “I would rather take a punch than not give you a shot/I’d rather find out who you are than who you’re not,” Harper contends in a smoky growl, wrapped up in nothing more than a conga-driven stroll lined with the Garth Hudson-style effectof Yates’ thin, curdled organ. Anything more — flying electric guitars, rebel yells — would have been messy and redundant.
Harper has cited Bob Marley’s Natty Dread and Morrison’s Moondance among his favorite albums, and the lineage is evident here. “In the Colors” is a ladies’ choice in funky-reggae time, with Nelson’s bass working the long stretches between Harper’s gritty whispers. “Say You Will” is a mix of Seventies echoes, the country church-service bounce of Delaney and Bonnie and the Woodstock-era Morrison; the folk-soul of Bill Withers. And it is easy to imagine the convulsive-R&B verses and quiet, hurting choruses of “Needed You Tonight” in the grip of Otis Redding.
It is just as easy to wish that there was more in spots: a flash of brass over Charles’ furious drum rolls in “Needed You Tonight”; more electricity and slam in the country-blues moan “Fool for a Lonesome Train.” (The Black Crowes could have a field day with the latter.) And Harper, a fine slide guitarist, takes only a couple of very short breaks here, a peculiar choice given the amount of open air on the record. Solos are not inherently evil. And sometimes a tune is not a song without them.
But that is why God made live albums, and Harper has made a great one, the 2001 double CD Live From Mars. He and the Innocent Criminals are on tour more than they’re home anyway, so there will be plenty of nights for these songs to grow. But Lifeline mostly succeeds in warming ways, especially at the end. “Paris Sunrise #7” is a solo Harper instrumental — part Hawaiian slack key in the rubber-sugar whine of his slide, part raga in its elegant slalom — that eases into the closing title song, a yearning ballad that is again just Harper’s voice and his guitar. He has a way of drawing out a vowel or syllable as if he’s hanging on for dear life, and the quiet around him in “Lifeline” is the right arrangement. It’s not that less is more — only that, in that moment, less is perfect.