With his protest songs, kinky Afro, and whining slide-guitar lines, Ben Harper is a rock & roll Rip Van Winkle — it’s as if he fell asleep in 1974 and woke up, still clutching Taj Mahal vinyl sides, 30 years later. Harper’s retro aura infuses his stellar seventh studio LP, Both Sides of the Gun, which employs another favored Vietnam War-era device: the double album. Don’t panic, though. Each CD is barely over 30 minutes, so it’s not a case of musical bombast or lazy editing. Both Sides neatly divides Harper’s dual allegiance to moon-eyed hippie serenades and razor-edged rock swagger into two discs. The SoCal singer has a wispy voice and imperfect falsetto, which makes him a great wounded balladeer, as proved by the pleading country-dusted ”Waiting for You” and the Cat Stevens-like meditation ”Happy Everafter in Your Eyes.” It’s excellent make-out material, but the electric disc is even better, with more focused songs, savvy arrangements — he sprinkles sitars, strings, and vibraphones alongside his guitar chops — and soulful choruses that stick like gum. And finally, Harper’s preachy tone serves him well on ”Black Rain,” a post-Katrina call to arms with a seriously dirty funk groove.
It’s occasionally a bit too easy to play spot-the-influences with Harper’s stuff — the fingerprints of both Stones, Rolling and Sly, are all over this one — but his unabashed, unaffected nostalgia is more charming than irritating. In other words, it’s so uncool, it’s cool. Electric disc: A- Acoustic disc: B+
Both Sides of the Gun