Good vibrations 

Amy Martin and Ben Harper sing from the soul

Amy Martin
Live in Missoula
self-released

Amy Martin’s latest CD release, Live in Missoula, is a balm for the musical soul, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. A friend of mine said that he expected hard, aggressive rock to dominate the airwaves in the coming days even more so than it has in the past few years. I’m inclined to agree, as it fits in with the pugnacious climate of war in which we live. Our country’s international practices can and will seep easily into our daily lives unless met with conscious resistance. You can feel the tension in the air. It’s the same tension that leads to brawls at Flathead karaoke nights. And it’s inevitable when you live in a city like Missoula, where you can spy a peace sign hanging in front of a university area home and, just blocks away, come upon a banner hanging from a frat house reading, “Have a saq. Bomb Iraq.” Last week, I attempted to mediate a discussion on the Higgins St. bridge between two people who had burned a flag and an irascible young man who was adamant that “They attacked us,” which led to an escalated conflict over who “they” actually were. It is nearly impossible to have an intelligent Socratic dialogue in this sort of climate, as each side has already made up its mind.

If there is an approach that could restore calmness and rationality to our world, however, Amy Martin has mastered it on her latest release. Combining measured, rich vocals with gentle acoustic guitar, Martin’s songs seem to be crafted in keeping with the Taoist idea that just as water eventually wears down sticks and stones, the soft will overcome the hard. This approach is nowhere more evident than in Martin’s aptly titled “Soft,” a breezy ballad in which she intones, “This world is a hard, hard place. Let me be soft in it.” But even if Martin approaches her often-political subject matter with a subdued sound, she is not afraid to take a firm stand within the compassionate acoustic framework she has built. In “It’s About Oil,” the singer/songwriter uses humor and a sprinkling of sarcasm to give the Bush administration a thorough shaking. “Consequences” urges the listener to think about the long-term eventualities of current U.S. policies rather than the quick-fix, fast food solutions that Joe Consumer has come to depend on. The song is aided by the driving bongo drumming of Michael Marsolek. In fact, Martin is accompanied by several talented local performers on the album, including guitarist Mason Tuttle, fiddler and vocalist Beth Youngblood, and sax player Lawrence Duncan.

Aside from these talented locals, you can feel the spirit of Missoula’s peace movement as a whole wafting throughout Live in Missoula. Recorded live on Dec. 7, 2002 at the Roxy Theater, the album allows the audience to play an important role (a fact which Martin clearly acknowledges, as the liner notes credit the crowd with vocals and percussion). The Roxy audience is most involved in the tender folk number “Peace for Paul,” a tribute to the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, as well as on a chant of “Paz, Salaam, Shalom.” It’s the type of thing that jaded cynics will dismiss as hippie crap if their hearts have hardened to the beauty of the sing-along, but for those unafraid to affirm their common humanity, this song, and this album as a whole, is an inspiration.

Ben Harper
Diamonds on the Inside
Virgin

Sharing in Amy Martin’s idealistic approach to songwriting at the national level is Ben Harper, who opens his latest release, Diamonds on the Inside, with the lyrics “I can change the world with my own two hands.” However, Harper’s new wares seem aimed more at transforming his innermost self than changing the world at large. In fact, a good chunk of Diamonds on the Inside comes off as a bittersweet break-up album. I’d say about half of it. The other half is a deeply spiritual prayer of thanks for the blessings that have been bestowed upon this singer/songwriter. The lyrics are heartfelt, though not as biting as those on some previous albums, such as Fight for Your Mind. Still, this may be Harper’s most personal album to date, and one of his most adventurous, musically. There’s the expected share of acoustic-driven folk-rock numbers, but Harper switches things up on Diamonds, drawing more heavily on funk and gospel influences. “Picture of Jesus” utilizes the African vocal harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo for some soothing results. I have no idea what the chorus of Ladysmith Black Mambazo members is singing about in the background on this track, but the mellifluous, deep African sound is as comforting as an afternoon stew in some hot springs. “Bring the Funk” is a trip down memory lane to that era when Michael Jackson’s race was not a matter of national debate, and the tune utilizes Jackson family-style background vocals to round it out.

A few of Harper’s experiments go astray. One such, “Temporary Remedy,” comes off as a poor Jimi Hendrix imitation, or, even worse, a poor carbon copy of Lenny Kravitz doing a hideous Jimi Hendrix impersonation. As a whole, though, Diamonds on the Inside will please those who have been into Harper for a while now, and may draw some newcomers into the fold as well. It’s hard to resist Harper’s soulful ballads and funky up-tempo numbers. If this is indeed a black-and-white cookie of a break-up/gospel album—and the signs are all there—then one can at least be sure that Harper is passionate about his subject matter, and that passion carries Diamonds on the Inside through to its shining conclusion.

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