Ben Harper sounds good on paper. He's a 24-year-old Californian devoted to vintage acoustic guitars, original political songs and the unusual blend of calypso and Mississippi Delta blues--an inspired blend of David Lindley, Tracy Chapman, and Taj Mahal. Unfortunately, Harper's execution of this original conception on his debut album, "Welcome to the Cruel World," is distinctly underwhelming.
Harper's singing is the biggest problem. He mumbles his vocals with so little articulation and within such a narrow range that he makes Bob Dylan sound like Al Green by comparison. Moreover, Harper's overall performance is so low in energy that he makes the laid-back Cowboy Junkies sound like the Sex Pistols. His songwriting and guitar picking reveals hints of a modest talent, but they aren't nearly special enough to compensate for the narcotic effect of his singing. The heavy-handed Rodney King song, the adaptation of a Maya Angelou poem and the broken-hearted love songs are more likely to recall Chapman's disappointing second album rather than her exhilarating first. --Geoffrey Himes