We’ve heard the phrase before, “the way albums used to be made.” Is it used to express nostalgia for the old days when music was authentic, unprocessed, immediate and honest? Does it suggest a rejection of today’s technical – read less human – approach to music? Does it infer that musician’s today can’t compete with the musician’s of yesteryear?
When Ben Harper uses the phrase it defines the experience he and his band had in writing and recording their new album Lifeline. He and his band, The Innocent Criminals, had just wrapped a 9 month tour, including a final 8 week stint in Europe. At this point the band had gelled enough to intuit each other’s improvisational bents and finish each other’s sentences. Thanks to a bit of innovative thinking by Harper, the band began to use nightly sound checks as pre-production for an upcoming recording session. It also allowed Harper the opportunity to fulfill a life long dream of recording in Paris and gave each band member a role in creating the songs; all members receive writing credits for the albums music. Harper writes all lyrics. As band leader Harper is secure in letting his band mates take the lead in developing their individual parts in a song and taking time to let the music evolve.
Time was a luxury the band did not have in the studio. Lifeline was recorded in 7 days with the band playing tracks live – no overdubs - using archaic machinery. Guitarist Michael Ward calls the recording process “pre-primitive.” The band arrived at what was touted to be a 24 track recording studio to discover the studio was equipped only with a 16 track analog system minus one unworkable track. It’s a good bet that Lifeline will be the only 15 track analog acoustic recording released this year. The band nicknamed the studio’s only tape player “Frank,” short for Frankenstein due to its stitched together look and monstrously fickle nature. The band had no computer help as the studio had no ProTools or AutoTuning. This is the way records used to be made.
Of course, no record is made without songs and Harper and the band have created 11 songs that showcase the soulful balladry of the band. These are songs that sound more like Otis Redding than Hendrix or George Clinton. Harper leaves behind the rock and funk of earlier releases to focus on passionate soul songs complete with backing girl choruses. Maybe this is a reflection of the band’s extended touring schedule. Harper says the record works as “a traveling musician’s journal.” There is a touch of exhaustion to these songs, a yearning for home and downtime and the kind of emotion that bubbles up when your so tired you can’t find the energy to hold back. Harper’s voice is strong but reveals the vulnerable places that are core to so many of these songs.
Lifeline is a record that sounds like the records we grew up with in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s and underscores that Ben Harper is not a stand alone musicians but a guy who is surrounded by a super group of musicians who are an essential part of the process that created this record.