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POP MUSIC | Record Rack

** 1/2 BEN HARPER, "Live From Mars," Virgin

March 25, 2001|STEVE HOCHMAN

If this Claremont-based musician has had one career problem, it's been his image. Is he a hotshot guitar slinger? A neo-soulster? A righteous folkie? A hippie blues jammer? A monster rocker?

On his first live release after four studio albums (due in stores Tuesday), Harper doesn't narrow it down.

With his Innocent Criminals band, he shows off the chops that have made him a guitar hero, gets sexy-funky on a version of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," engages in spontaneous instrumental interplay and blasts the rafters with a solid take on Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." Playing solo, he aims to cross Phil Ochs and Bob Marley on "Like a King."

But in the course of the set's all-solo acoustic second disc, another image emerges: the new Cat Stevens. That's a compliment--the easy tripping of his voice and the more sensitive touch of his guitar playing are winningly intimate in a way the electric material is not, with a version of the Verve's "The Drugs Don't Work" an affecting highlight.

As a body of work, Harper's songs fall just short of something special, but the real lesson of this collection is that if he ever integrates his several impressive facets into one seamless whole, he could rank among rock's most valuable players.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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