Ben Molds: Harper attempts to shape a new band on White Lies for Dark Times.

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The members of Relentless7 may have worked out a devil’s bargain for themselves: Nobody would ever have heard of the Austin noise-rock band without the patronage of Ben Harper, but collaborating with the singer/guitarist on White Lies for Dark Times may bring the group a sort of recognition they don’t need—branding them a poor man’s version of the Innocent Criminals, Harper’s proper band. Harper insists he’s just trying something new and hasn’t abandoned the group whose groove long carried him, even in unforgiving waters (the 12 genres tried on like so many gaucho hats on 2003’s Diamonds on the Inside, for example). But while R7 may be a decent fit for the dark, heavy style Harper’s toying with, they offer little distraction from the singer’s perennially so-so lyrics, almost highlighting his every mangled couplet. On White Lies, Harper’s still ranting about motherfuckers trying to control his mind, still indignant about familiar variations on the no-free-lunch situation. “The very thing that drives you/Can drive you insane,” he sings on “Number With No Name,” only to repeat himself on “Up to You Now” with the line “The arms that hold you close/Are the arms that hold you back.” Fanciful contradictions arising out of second-rate wordplay aren’t in short supply on the festival circuit—but they’re hard to sell without Cee-Lo’s nonchalance or Jack White’s jaunty darkness. White’s problem, of course, is that he’s got too many ideas to fit onto one project at a time; Harper’s is that he doesn’t have enough. “The word suicide is irresponsible,” he sings on “The Word Suicide,” choosing to pick on the word, rather than the act. It’s typical of the confusion that derails Harper’s attempts at storytelling throughout the album. Dumb rock frequently takes itself for smart, but White Lies wears its mock epiphanies with too much swagger and not enough rhythm. But the near-parodic riffage, best exemplified on “Keep It Together (So I Can Fall Apart),” is quarantined on the album’s second side, leaving the first half of the record reasonably strong. Bright spots include album-opener “Number With No Name,” a convincing rocker; “Up to You Now,” a self-pitying but funky minor-key workout; and lead single “Shimmer and Shine,” which is remarkably poppy but touchingly crooned by Harper. The album is noteworthy for Harper’s guitar throughout—his slide playing is as tearfully fluid as ever—and a couple of the singer’s trademark soft songs that make for worthy download: gospel track “Skin Thin” and devotional closer “Faithfully Remain.” Still, for every fleshy, distorted bassline that threatens to elevate the pulse, you’ll wish the Criminals were there, and that Harper could’ve given Relentless7 a leg up without simultaneously dragging them down.