Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite, “No Mercy in This Land” (Anti-Records)
With a Grammy for best blues album in their pocket for 2014’s “Get Up!” Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite put themselves in contention again with “No Mercy in This Land.”
The credit sheet gives the impression of a lopsided May-September collaboration. Harper wrote or co-wrote the 10 tracks, sings and plays guitar (slide, acoustic, electric) on all of them and co-produced the record. All Musselwhite does is play the harmonica and intone some emotional verses on the title track. Just like all Shakespeare did was write plays and poems.
The album veers between electric and acoustic sounds, from songs about the challenges and thrills of love to a couple of tunes about alcoholism and others about seemingly insurmountable hardships.
There are sharp observations and knowledge of the world in Harper’s songs — “Everybody says I love you/But not everybody lives I love you” and “You may have learned to hustle/But you never learned to dance” — and they’re a great fit with the duo’s magnetic blues repertoire, blended with gospel, soul and rhythm & blues.
“The Bottle Wins Again” rages, “Bad Habits” shakes, “Moving On” struts and “Found the One” sounds ripe for a cover by Harper’s other veteran collaborators, the Blind Boys of Alabama.
Musselwhite’s tones range from Little Walter-like overdriven vamps to a caressing contribution reminiscent of Larry Adler on the excellent album-ending ballad “Nothing at All.” Lead guitarist Jason Mozersky, whose solos blend beautifully with Musselwhite’s, bassist Jesse Ingalls and drummer Jimmy Paxson form a tight, flexible unit.
There’s no audible generation gap on “No Mercy in This Land,” just a pair of kindred souls who know how to make great music.