I should, in theory, loathe this. For a start it features Ben Harper. And, in this set of songs with his mother, timed for a Mother’s Day release, you just have to smell that familiar whiff of bullshit. I’ve been calling this charlatan out for years. Kinda dug the first three albums at the time, good live gigs too, but seeing him recently and listening to his dreary not-quite-Cat-Stevens-voiced faux-blues has always been hard work. Well, for the last decade anyway. Also previous collaborations (with The Blind Boys of Alabama and Charlie Musselwhite) have had me wishing that Harper had not been involved.
So maybe this is a giant backhanded compliment or whatever – and absolutely, for me, the start of the show is Harper’s mother, Ellen – but this is the best thing with Ben Harper’s name on it since The Will To Live. (He’s been slowly stripping mine ever since the release of that album).
There’s a warmth and charm to this – acoustic instruments, his mother a proficient musician, with a voice that recalls the McGarrigles and Emmylou Harris and that folk-ish country-pop style.
Sure there’s something a bit cloying still (always?) about Ben Harper’s style and he tries very hard with some of his songs about childhood memories, familiar smells and the power of family but there are enough highlights to take this over the pass-mark threshold. Ellen’s song Farmer’s Daughter is the standout, brushed drums and a clawhammer banjo, it’s the sort of gnarled narrative that propelled that wonderful brace of final Levon Helm albums.
Ben Harper’s slide playing – when he sits back, when he relaxes, when he ditches the stoned-over shaman/charlatan or the excitable puppy-dog rock-guy bullshit – is tender, evocative of the Ry Cooder albums his mother clearly knew so well.
The big thing with this – it’s easy. Easy to listen to, easy to like. It’s a little safe, sure. And I’m not sure if the allure will last, but I can’t fault it for what it is, for right now. And it’s a nice swerve. Each Harper album before this seemed to arrive like a blow to the head. And then I realised it was actually just me in a room hitting myself over the head with the album – when absolutely I didn’t need to do that. So it’s especially nice to find that this is warm and almost enchanting.
I’m still no Ben Harper fan but I’m definitely an Ellen Harper fan after hearing this.