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RECORD RACK

March 13, 1994|STEVE HOCHMAN

BEN HARPER

"Welcome to the Cruel World"

Virgin

* * * 1/2

They don't make records like this anymore--acoustic folk music in the truest sense, current yet not time-bound, earnest yet playful, somber yet bold, ambitious yet compact. Tracy Chapman and the Indigo Girls have made the most notable attempts in recent years, but they bogged down somewhere along the line. You might have to go back to the late Tim Buckley's earliest, most focused late-'60s albums to find a comparison for this Inland Empire newcomer's debut.

Harper's voice, in fact, seems like an airy echo of Buckley's otherworldly singing, as well as an echo of his own elastic, acoustic slide guitar licks. At his best he uses the softness of his voice as a weapon with cutting attacks on cultural divisiveness ("Don't Take That Attitude to Your Grave," "How Many Miles Must We March") and personal hurt ("Walk Away"). His youth makes him forgivable for sometimes overreaching, especially on the strained, obvious Martin Luther King/Rodney King analogies of "Like a King," but that same innocence helps him put over some sly social twists on the bouncy "Mama's Got a Girlfriend Now."

Throughout, the appeal of his folk-blues melodies is immediate, the depth of his emotions rewarding and the promise of his talent noteworthy.

New albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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