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Ben Harper and Relentless7

White Lies for Dark Times

Virgin / Release: May 5

Sounds like: How Harper got his groove back

Short take: Did this guy really sing "Steal My Kisses"?

A decade ago, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals' Burn to Shine and its precious single "Steal My Kisses" kicked off a string of successes that endeared Harper to the Bonnaroo set. Like Robert Randolph & the Family Band before him, Harper made music you could groove to without getting too excited. None of it had the force of blaring rocker "Shimmer and Shine," the new album's tightest track, or the barroom twang of "Skin Thin" or "Lay There & Hate Me." White Lies for Dark Times has an urgency that, while flavored by Harper's contributions — the emotion in his voice in "Fly One Time," the despair he brings to "The Word Suicide" — clearly isn't coming from him. Relentless7 makes this more like a haymaker thrown by a hungry club act than a pedestrian release by a man on cruise control. This is Harper's best album in a decade. — Jason Notte

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MxPx

On the Cover II

Tooth & Nail Records

Sounds like: MxPx needed to release something, anything, and here it is

Short take: MxPx can't help poppy oldies crap

Maybe MxPx lost a bet. Or maybe the punk group was in debt to some mafioso type with a love for crappy pop music. Neither explanation would really justify On the Cover II, which, like its predecessor, finds the trio delving into an oddball collection of confusing covers that invariably are delivered tongue-in-cheek. There's the coked-up version of U2's "I Will Follow," which is so frenetically fast and jittery that MxPx had to add a Black Sabbath-esque jam mid-song to reach the 180-second mark. Other tracks include the Proclaimers' one hit, "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)," which inexplicably digresses into Cheap Trick's "Surrender." Questionable song selections aside, there appears to be a lack of enthusiasm here, with MxPx coming across more like Jimmy Eat World than the anti-Green Day pop-punk act we'd come to love. — John Benson

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Ben Lee

The Rebirth of Venus

New West

Sounds like: A pretty boy's pretty music about ugly things

Short take: Like taking a pill with a pile of sugar

Ben Lee's seventh album finds our Aussie friend struggling with his social conscience. Not content to play to his strengths on McCartney-style silly love songs, like "Bad Poetry" and "What's So Bad (About Feeling Good)?" he stumbles by aping Lennon's "War is Over" choir in "Song for the Divine Mother of the Universe." Lee desperately wants to look through John's oblong lenses (he even covers "Woman is the Nigger of the World" on the CD's special edition), but falls decidedly short on the cloying "I'm a Woman Too" and "Boy with a Barbie." He glosses over global affairs in "I Love Pop Music" and critiques empire-building while making out with two girls at once in "Wake Up to America." Lee praises Lennon's post-Beatles development in "Yoko Ono," but never really follows his lead. Face it, Ben, you're the cute one. — Jason Notte

  • Ben Harper and Relentless7, MxPx, Ben Lee

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