Won over by an artist you can't stand

22:56, May 21 2014

Whenever I put a call out for blog topics - often on Facebook I ask for suggestions and it's not (just) because I'm tapped for ideas, more because I'm curious about what keeps people reading, I want to know what people who read a music blog want to read about - someone always asks something along the lines of "what artist that you can't stand has made an album you really like?"

It's a good question because it's harder to avoid artists you don't like when you review music. Albums arrive, links arrive and though I'll never be accused of objectivity (thank god or whoever) I can only tell you that I my ears are open to the idea that any album could be great. That someone who has let me down could turnaround and release a truly great album (there's hope for you yet, Arcade Fire). I mean it's possible, maybe, that someone truly ghastly - a band so obnoxiously woeful - Muse, for instance, could one day knock it out of the park.

And that is rewarding.

It's boring to just tick off each Radiohead or Wilco release, or whatever. It's definitely great to be pleasantly surprised by the first interesting Eric Clapton album in 30 year (if that might happen) or, last year for example I found the Vampire Weekend record to my taste when, previously, I hadn't cared about that group.

There's lots of things that make a record great and there's all sorts of baggage that any listener brings to it. When reviewing an album you can't write about the album that artist made - not objectively. You can only write about the album you heard. Sometimes the experience matches up, lines up perfectly. It was easy to gush about the new Angelique Kidjo album, I like a lot of her music, the players on the new album are top notch, the songs are strong. Very easy to like. A great album but no great surprise I liked it.

But I do have an example of a great album released this year - or at least a very good album - by an artist I (usually) don't like: Ben Harper's Childhood Memories. Part of why I like it is because it's an album Harper has created with his mother - she is the start of the record actually, I'm probably damning Harper with faint praise. But for nearly two decades now his music has bugged me, his persona has been more troubling and his fans - the super-fans, the unctuous, twatty, trustafarian types, have probably bugged me more so than his music.

Sitting through most of a solo performance by Harper a couple of years ago was very close to excruciating.

So Childhood Memories was a huge surprise. I could not have expected to like it - released for Mother's Day, a set of tunes with his mother, the very idea seemed like a typically cloying/naff/horrible Harper trope.

But, judging the album by its songs and the performances, I've gotta say it's pretty good. I've played it a bunch - written it up positively - and it's not one of those review-copies that's been tossed in the pile to now ignore. It keeps finding its way back onto the stereo. There's plenty of charm to it. And just enough in the way of good songs.

Absolutely the surprise of the record is hearing Harper's mother - her voice a bit like the McGarrigle Sisters, the conviction, the storytelling. But Ben Harper sounds better than he ever has before. He finally sounds like he's relaxing into the songs, taking a backseat for once. He's made other collaborative albums that have been pretty awful. And his solo albums swiftly became embarrassing

Anyway, this is just the most recent - current - example I have of liking an album, quite a lot actually, by an artist I almost totally cannot stand. If I wasn't in the game of reviewing music I wouldn't have bothered to hear this record. And that would have been missing out. There's some top tunes and some lovely, fireside-styled performances.

So I'm never sure if I've been correctly armed with the right example to answer that question but Childhood Memories by Ben and Ellen Harper is good. Worth a listen. Worth several. And I never thought I'd be saying that about any album with the name Ben Harper on the spine.

So, what have you heard recently that fits into this space, an album by an artist you (normally) stand but it won you over?

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