We weren’t the only ones who really liked Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite‘s 2013 collaboration Get Up!, judging by the GRAMMY Award it received for best blues album. Now the duo is back with another real kicker in No Mercy in This Land (ANTI- Records), a delightful mix of rootsy and rocking material that strongly positions Harper and Musselwhite for a repeat performance at the prestigious music awards.
With its haunting vocals and tough, gritty guitar riffs, the edgy, lightly rocking opener “When I Go” establishes right up front that the pair hasn’t lost any of the fire they displayed on their debut release, a point reiterated through later uptempo tracks such as “The Bottle Wins Again” and “Movin’ On”, the latter also serving as a great example of Harper’s brilliant songwriting, with lyrics that include “You practice law without a license, psychology too/ but your PhD is in givin’ me the blues” and “you get away with murder, you got a way with words/ speakin’ in a language that nobody’s ever heard” as the song indeed gets you moving with its greasy harmonica and a tearing guitar solo.
On the other end of the spectrum are numbers like the slow, tender piano ballad “When Love is Not Enough” that allows Musselwhite a breather midway through the program and quiet, soulful closer “Nothing at All” on which Harper takes his own turn on the keys. And in between are songs that span from the slick, West Coast soul grooves of “Found the One”, to the dark, creeping title track on which Harper and Musselwhite trade vocals, to an array of blues tunes such as the shuffling Chicago blues of “Bad Habits”, the folksy acoustic “Love and Trust” with rich background vocals that give it a Holmes Brothers sound, and the breezy, country Delta-ish “Trust You to Dig My Grave” on which the pair comes across like a modern-day Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee as Harper delivers such lyrics as “woke up this morning, poured a cup of the blues/ I will always find a way to lose” and “there ain’t no worries you can’t drink away”.
In the album’s press materials, Musselwhite spoke to the duo’s contemporary take on the music: “I think it is safe to say that Ben has reinvented the blues in a great way: playing modern while preserving the feel,” while Harper himself offered: “At this moment, I don’t think I could make a better record than this.”
First introduced to one another by John Lee Hooker when he brought the two of them into the studio to record “Burnin’ Hell” for his Best of Friends album, we can only imagine how proud the legendary bluesman would be to hear what Musselwhite and Harper have turned out through their first two collaborations. And while it may be difficult, as Harper alludes, to make another record as good as this one, we’re pretty sure that these guys have just what it takes to make that happen.
Here are a few more memorable lyrics from the album, all written either in full or part by Harper:
“You’re like a puzzle in a box, but I’m the one coming all apart/ Got a bad habit, you know the one I mean/ No before, no after, only in between” – “Bad Habits”
“Sometimes I make choices, sometimes they make me/ …Broken hearts and broken dreams, turns out they weigh the same” – “The Bottle Wins Again”
“I walk but I stumble, I roll but I tumble/ I reach but I fumble, I speak but I mumble” – “Trust You to Dig My Grave”
“Won me in a poker game, lost me in a bet/ Then you got the nerve, to turn around and get upset/ …Go to third world countries, kicking three-legged dogs/ and by 3 PM, you’re living high on the hog” – “Movin’ On”
Here’s the pair performing “The Bottle Wins Again” on last night’s “Late Late Show with James Corden”: