Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals have never gotten their due, even after releasing last year's exceptional double-CD, Both Sides of the Gun. That release played like an 18-track soundtrack to modern America in which Harper pitted the ideal world he desired for his family against the cynical reality of the Bush administration. Alas, nobody except his fans seemed to care. So, earlier this year at the conclusion of a nine-month tour, he and his band hit a Parisian studio to record 11 songs they'd rehearsed and perfected during the tour's sound checks. The result is a collection of modest arrangements, played without ostentation or ornamentation — a loud-and-decisive cry that analog tape ain't dead yet.

Harper's pro-analog message is especially evident on the slow, beautiful "Fool for a Lonesome Train" and the funky reggae-tinged "In the Colors," not to mention the bad-ass authority of the frontman's voice on the swaggering "Say You Will." And "Fight Outta You," the opening track, actually serves as a nice transition from Both Sides, offering up some otherwise-absent (from this album) socially-conscious fare. However, the song also points out just how much soul Harper's effort lacks this time. This isn't to say that Lifeline doesn't deliver. In fact, in many ways, it's Harper's best work to date. Nevertheless, it represents more of a career sidestep for the artist and his band than another step forward.

Cole Hadden writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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