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Ben Harper is an upstart who draws heavily from the most spiritual strains of folk and soul, but he has aligned himself with hiphop, touring with rap acts that his live band routinely upstages and outfunks. Harper’s shows tend to be sweaty affairs, conscious parties in which the talented slide guitarist and Weissenborn player shifts from the role of bluesman to Bob Marley disciple, pushing a brotherly-love agenda and otherwise treating the stage as a sort of pulpit. In short, the guy’s a mouthful, and on his latest, The Will to Live, Harper offers up his biggest feast yet. Relative to his performances, Harper’s recordings have been bland, beat-flecked neo-folk affairs. Live is Harper’s attempt to sound as big as he feels. On “Faded” and the title track, he serves up meaty, distorted riffs, and his rhythm section seizes the opportunities to engage in raunchy funk-metal jams. But the songs provide only cheap thrills; they’re mind-numbing and shamelessly derivative—too much like Lenny Kravitz. On “Roses From My Friends,” a song that starts with tape loops and later swells with string arrangements, Harper demonstrates that he still can’t resist using the studio to bloat his already-grand gestures. As was the case on Harper’s previous recordings, Live’s best moments are the quieter ones. On “Number Three,” Harper plucks a gorgeous melody unaccompanied for 1:43—anything more lavish would ruin it. When the arrangements are spare, as they are in “Jah Work,” a stirring reggae tune, and “Ashes,” a simple waltz, Harper sings in an affecting, whispery moan that gets right to the core of a man moved by deep distress.

—Brett Anderson