BEN HARPER & THE INNOCENT CRIMINALS "Lifeline" (Virgin) 2 ½ stars
"Lifeline" is an old-fashioned, warmly analog acoustic soul recording. Ben Harper and his band, the Innocent Criminals, cut the disc in seven days on a 16-track machine sans computers in Paris, post-European tour.
The result eschews CDs' sterile digital quality for something approaching vinyl and has Harper sounding like an offspring of Cat Stevens and Tracy Chapman - not such a bad thing, really. Musically, he's armed with some instantly accessible tunes such as the spry, Little Feat-like "Say You Will," the `70s soul kissed "In the Colors" and the up-tempo "Fight Outta You," which Harper sings in a curiously effective monotone.
The point clearly was to make the kind of music-first, gimmick-free album some of Harper's rock and R&B musical heroes might have released in the Nixon years. He comes close. But when the album winds down with an aimless guitar instrumental ("Paris Sunrise #7") and tepid title track, one wishes Harper had heeded his own "Fight Outta You" words that find him urging someone not to wind up defeated "like a half empty balloon after a party in the corner."
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"Lifeline" is a nice little record. Just stick to its first two-thirds.
TRAVIS TRITT "The Storm" (Category 5) 2 stars
You can't get "American Idol" judge Randy Jackson to shut up about the time he played in Journey, as if this makes him an expert on "Idol's" rock theme nights. It's a safe bet he'll lord his country music cred over Simon next season, given his latest eye-opening collaboration: He's coproduced country vet Travis Tritt's new CD.
Talk about your odd combinations. Peanut butter and chocolate, this ain't. Jackson might want to keep this one on the down low. "The Storm," with two contributions from soulless song hack Diane Warren, two from `80s pop singer Richard Marx and one co-written with Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty, has the music-by-committee sound of one of those blustery, pseudo-R&B albums Michael Bolton pumped out with regularity to eager housewives in the early `90s.
Unlike Bolton, Tritt dips into his soul register with ease and doesn't screech as if poked in the eye with a hot curling iron. By moving Tritt far from his country base (only one track here, the jaunty "High Time for Gettin' Down," could remotely pass for country) Jackson ably pushes the singer into delivering a passable Ray Charles pastiche on songs like "Rub Off on Me." But Jackson's production is otherwise merely competent and unimaginative. There isn't an interesting instrumental break or musical flourish to be found on these serviceable R&B/pop tunes. Not quite a "dawg," but not the career rejuvenating album Tritt must have wanted.
Pod Pick: "High Time for Gettin' Down."
BRAHMS: "Symphony No. 1" & BEETHOVEN: "Egmont Overture" Christian Thielemann, Munich Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon) 4 stars
Christian Thielemann is that rarest of conductors, a musician with the ability to make even the most familiar works appear newly minted and imbued with fresh drama and visceral impact. The German conductor is at his finest in music of his compatriots, as eloquently demonstrated with these fiery and commanding live performances of Beethoven and Brahms.
Beethoven's Egmont Overture often is thrown off with an obligatory generalized vehemence, but there's nothing routine about this performance. Thielemann directs the Munich players in a reading of massive weight and breadth yet one that is also spacious and searching with great delicacy in the winds. Not a single bar sounds routine, with a blazing urgency, the coda taken at a crackling speed.
That same rich sonority, muscle and taut drama characterize the Brahms symphony that follows. The pounding timpani are nerve jangling in the opening bars, yet as tense and emphatic as this performance is, everything sounds natural and unfolds fluidly with great conviction.
The Munich strings display great richness in the Andante and there's a wonderfully bucolic feel to the woodwind solos, the lyricism luxuriant without schmaltz. A lithe yet mercurial scherzo leads to a terrific finale with great tension and anticipation before the famous horn theme steals in, and tremendous punch to the closing bars.
There has been a wealth of excellent Brahms recordings in recent months and Thielemann's exciting new disc is among the finest.
-Lawrence A. Johnson