The other Innocent Criminals are guiltier of excess: Rotund bassist Juan Nelson and frenetic percussionist David Leach both hint at the potential to spiral off into 20-minute Dave Matthews Band violin-solo territory, which is always an ugly thing. And with Burn to Shine, his fourth album for Virgin Records, Harper emulates Matthews himself -- but in another way, mucking around with tarted-up power ballads such as "Steal My Kisses." It's hardly a development worth celebrating, even if the yuppie-hippies are eating it up (especially the women, who seem to find Harper, well, dreamy, in a Gap-khakis-ad sort of way).
It's a disappointing development, because at his most inspired -- in his noisier, bluesier moments -- the 30-year-old Californian has shown he has the potential to extend one of the great unexplored avenues of Jimi Hendrix's legacy, i.e., the Martian-metal blues of "Red House." The best Ben Harper remains the one who summons up great gales of white noise and powerful gusts of feedback on his Weissenborn lap steel and Rickenbacker "frying pan," sitting in that silly chair and displaying a bare minimum of guitar-hero theatrics while thoroughly blowing your mind, man. Jim DeRogatis