Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite follow up their 2014 grammy award winning album Get Up! with another gem for blues lovers - and potentially another grammy - No Mercy in this Land, released 30 March.
Harper wrote or co-authored all ten tracks on the album, as well as co-producing, singing and playing electric or acoustic guitar. His background in rock, funk, reggae, gospel, soul and folk music means that he was always likely to bring eclectic and modern touches to this vibrant and varied blues collection.
Musselwhite, on the other hand, sings a little but principally contributes harmonica; he has previously downplayed his role by saying: “I only know one tune, and I play it faster or slower, or I change the key, but it’s just the one tune. It’s all I know.”But this is a man with an incredible pedigree, from Delta to Chicago blues, who counted Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Buddy Guy among his acquaintances. He’s also played with INXS on Suicide Blonde, Tom Waits on Mule Variations, and Bonnie Raitt’s Longing in their Hearts, among many others.
The powerful and outstanding title track, which preceded the album in its release, beautifully showcases the complementary talents of these two artists. The lyrics could be interpreted as a lament about struggle and survival in general, or perhaps is a specific criticism of the current political situation in the US. "The righteous and the wretched, the holy and the damned,"Harper sings, "There's no mercy in this land."
The album kicks off however withWhen I go,a mournful song about loss, which contains a cool electric guitar riff, possibly on one of Harper’s Fender or Gibson six strings. The album then moves on to a more up tempo blues and jazz-tinged number, Bad Habits. “When a man gives you his hat, he’s living on borrowed time”, sings Harper intriguingly, backed by some percussive instrumentation.
The Bottle Wins Again has a Chicago feel about it, and the theme of alcoholism is of course classic blues fare: “sometimes I make choices, sometimes they make me,” croons Harper. On the other hand, the romantic Found the One, containing the couplet “no more races to run, I found the one”, is a little too gooey for this reviewer’s taste, but no doubt there will be many who love it.
Trust You to Dig My Grave is a catchy and much stronger song that returns listeners to folky blues, this time with Harper on acoustic guitar, perhaps a 40s Gibson LG-2 Vintage or Gibson J-45.
Movin On feels like a tune you might want to play on a long road journey to forget about those who only bring you trouble: “you may have learned to hustle, but you never learned to dance,” sings Harper acerbically. The album closes with an emotional and soulful slow number, Nothing at All.
Harper and Musselwhite are reportedly close friends as well as musical collaborators and their chemistry seems to have worked its magic again on this album. Their songs feel authentic, and they are certainly a double act to look out for, both on their current tour and at the forthcoming award ceremonies.