CD reviews: Ben Harper, Jason Michael Carroll, Gregory Alan IsakovBy Ricardo Baca | May 5th, 2009 | No Comments »
Ben Harper and Relentless7, “White Lies for Dark Times” (Virgin)
Ben Harper songs are all about that slinking bass groove, that dash of funk, that dose of sunshine, that good-times voice that has been the narrator of too many summertime barbecues to count.
That said, his songs don’t have a lot of personality. They all sound vaguely familiar, which is surely a part of his success. (He and his band are also tirelessly on the road.) It’s too bad, because Harper is a fascinating lyricist — but his music never holds up its end of the bargain.
Both “Lay There and Hate Me” and “Why Must You Always Dress in Black” benefit from Harper’s still-newish band, Relentless7 — bassist Jesse Ingalls, guitarist Jason Mozersky and drummer Jordan Richardson. Both numbers are built on a foundation of blues, and both thrive on the bass groove and vocal lines that are Harper’s trademark. And it’s hard not to appreciate his observation, “Never trust a woman who loves the blues.” – Ricardo Baca
Jason Michael Carroll, “Growing Up Is Getting Old” (Arista Nashville)
His name sounds vaguely familiar, and his voice is slightly more recognizable. Then you see his face, and you remember: Jason Michael Carroll won that Fox show “Gimme the Mike” and went on to open a bunch of dates for Brad Paisley.
One listen to Carroll’s second record, “Growing Up Is Getting Old,” and his chops are obvious. This boy’s got a voice. And he also has the forced country twang that goes along with so much radio- friendly country these days.
He co-wrote three of these tunes, the most memorable of which is “Happened on a Saturday Night (Suzy Q),” a drankin’ song that weaves a pretty good story. But the record’s single is the considerably less interesting “Where I’m From,” a cliche-ridden take on country life. The coming-of-age title track will appeal to plenty of boys in their 30s. “Barn Burner” is proof that Carroll is better with the upbeat tunes than he is with the ballads. – Ricardo Baca
Gregory Alan Isakov, “This Empty Northern Hemisphere” (self-released)
Watching Gregory Alan Isakov record and tour with Brandi Carlile gives me goose bumps. Fans of local music know of Isakov, his skilled songwriting and deft storytelling. But it’s impossible to know Isakov and not want to shout his name from the mountaintops.
“This Empty Northern Hemisphere” is an ideal introduction. (If you know Isakov already, you’ll appreciate him even more.) Each song is a character study. Each note has a purpose. No words are wasted. And the clean, layered recording is a lush showcase for Isakov’s brilliant band: Jen Gilleran, Jeb Bows and Phil Parker. The addition of Carlile on vocals is an obvious boon, and she never overpowers Isakov, who holds his own.
Isakov sounds more at ease with his role as the frontman on songs like “Evelyn” and “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong,” the latter a Leonard Cohen cover. (Both he and Carlile like their Cohen covers.) “Idaho” is proof of Isakov’s Josh Ritter-like talent for songwriting, and “Virginia May” has one of those choruses that sticks in your head days after hearing it for the first time. Ricardo Baca
Isakov releases “This Empty Northern Hemisphere” with a May 15 show at the Fox Theatre in Boulder.
Ricardo Baca is the founder and co-editor of Reverb and an award-winning critic and journalist at The Denver Post. He is also the executive director of the Underground Music Showcase, Colorado’s premier festival of local music. Follow his whimsies at Twitter, his live music habit at Gigbot and his iTunes addictions at Last.fm.