Ben Harper, The Surfers’ Choice
Ben Harper, the superbly moody 30-year-old singer-songwriter-guitarist, was on the phone from Raleigh, N.C.
“I’m not going to stay one Ben Harper,” he said. And indeed, his new album, Burn to Shine , explores rhythm-driven mid-tempos, Delta jaunts and harder guitar sounds that expand the folk and blues and rock on his previous three releases. “Life’s too short not to listen to a variety of music,” he said.
But in whatever style he chooses to play, Mr. Harper commands the devotion of the exacting subculture of surfers, who now swear by Mr. Harper.
“There’s not a lot of people like Ben,” said Rob Machado, a pro surfer who, in 1998, joined with Peter King and Kelly Slater and, calling themselves the Surfers, made Songs From the Pipe , a blissful album produced by T-Bone Burnett. “Ben’s an amazing musician,” Mr. Machado said before teeing off on a San Diego golf course. “I put him in a category with, like, Bob Marley.”
Chris Malloy, a surfer who also shoots documentaries and writes about surfing, experienced his Ben epiphany during a flight to Japan. “I love old blues and slide guitar,” said Mr. Malloy, kicking back at his house in Maui, Hawaii. “Halfway through the first track I teared up, was blown away. I passed the stuff around to everybody. Within six months, Ben was being surfed to.”
For Mr. Malloy, Mr. Harper’s fluidity matches a return to form in surfing, a move away from the manic energy that punk wrought on what Mr. Mal-loy considers a very artistic sport. He cites surf documentaries from the early 70’s like the Australian films Morning of the Earth and Free Ride .
“When Hendrix was around,” Mr. Malloy said, “his music seemed to coincide with the rhythms of surfing. But with the resurgence of style and grace from surfers like Rob Machado, my younger brother Dan and Kelly Slater, a gap existed. It wasn’t working to watch these surfers ride to fast-paced music.”
Mr. Harper, who “dreads” turning on pop radio, mentioned that he didn’t want his music to be “geography specific.” He acknowledged, though, that he grew up in the Inland Empire, between Los Angeles and the desert, and that he and Mr. Machado shared musical tastes. At least once, Mr. Harper hit haute-surf mode: “Music,” he said, “is almost like air to me, an element. It’s, like, fire, water, air and music.”
Mr. Malloy, who says a Ben Harper concert within 100 miles of a coast now resembles “a surf event,” finds this music key. “We spend eight months out of the year traveling the world. Then we have all this beautiful footage, and a lot of the music is what we need. You can sign autographs and jump on jets, but then you listen to Ben Harper. It brings you home. These days, that’s really, really rare.”
Ani DiFranco, Righteous Babe
I am not an Ani DiFranco freak. In fact, I’ve always found her lame. But her new record, To the Teeth (Righteous Babe Re-cords), is excellent.
The opening song, the title cut, is old-style DiFranco- a strident response to high school shootouts: “Some boy gets the milkfed suburban blues/ reaches for the available arsenal … Women in the middle/ are learning what poor women have always known, that the edge is closer than you think/ when your men bring the guns home.” I assume “poor” means economically disadvantaged as opposed to “poor poor pitiful me.” The song’s P.C. righteousness makes me want to force Ms. DiFranco to listen to Warren Zevon’s ode to automatic weaponry “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” a couple of dozen times and then give her a monographed Glock. But after she gets the gunplay out of her system, the album cooks. Nonstop!
It contains half-a-dozen funk and Cassandra Wilson-style jazz tunes-three featuring James Brown alumni Maceo Parker on woodwinds. The rest of the cuts are unclassifiable in a Beckish way. “The Arrivals Gate”-concerning a joyous epiphany Ms. DiFranco had in an airport-contains the first successful high-tech banjo arrangement in history. “Freakshow” has Ms. DiFranco doing a damn good overdubbed imitation of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. Throughout the album, Kurt Swinghammer plays one, two, maybe three unique guitar solos. The record’s biggest guest star is that hieroglyph guy. He duets with Ms. DiFranco on a quietly sinister song of regret called “Providence.”
What’s most impressive about the record is its self-confidence. Even elaborate multitracked songs sound relaxed. Ms. DiFranco matches Prince in throw-away virtuosity.
Ms. DiFranco also performs on His Purpleness’ new album, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic , strumming an innocu-ous acoustic guitar on the rather silly proclamation, “I love you, but I don’t trust you anymore.” (Note: On the CD sleeve, the word “I” is replaced with a little Egyptian-style eyeball.) Well, Ms. DiFranco, hang out with Prince all you want. You can even change your name to a petroglyph. Just continue milking the brilliant energy of To the Teeth .