Childhood Home, the new album from Grammy award-winning musician Ben Harper and his mother Ellen, has easily made a place for itself on this critic’s list of the year’s best new albums. The ten track album is comprised of entirely new material written by both the elder and younger Harper. And being that it was released only days before Mother’s Day only serves to make it an even more touching album. The album speaks volumes of the lives of both Ben and his mother, both of whose music is rooted deeply in the world of folk and roots music. Harper has shown those roots numerous times over the course of his career. However, nowhere have those roots been so clear than on this beautiful collection of songs. The album proves its value right off the top with the Harpers singing of what really makes a home in the aptly titled ‘A House is a Home.’ The elder Harper, who wrote four of the album’s songs offers another of the album’s best moments in the lightly bluegrass influenced ‘Farmer’s Daughter.’ The whole thing closes with what is one of the most powerful and moving pieces in ‘How Could We Not Believe.’ The depth of the piece is certain to leave not a single eye dry after hearing it. Having heard it along with the album’s other songs, any listener will agree that Childhood Home more than deserves to have a place on any critic’s list of the year’s best new albums.
Ben and Ellen Harper open their stunning new collection of songs with an opus that is just as certain to leave listeners teary-eyed as the album’s closer. That song is the gentle ‘A House is a Home.’ The song emphasizes that no matter what a person’s house looks like, a house is still a home. It is a home because of the memories that it creates. The duo makes this clear as it sings, “A house is a home/Even when there’s ghosts/Even when you gotta run/From the ones you love the most/Screen door’s broken/Paint’s peelin’ from the wood/Locals whisper/When they gonna leave the neighborhood?/A house is a home/even when we’ve up and gone/Even when you’re there alone/A house/A house/Is a home.” The mother and son duo continue crafting such a vivid picture to which so many listeners can relate singing of chores left undone, life getting in the way as families are built, etc. They emphasize that through it all, a house is still a home. It is made a home through everything noted. The gentle strains of the guitar set against the even gentler backing percussion, and the Harpers’ vocal harmonies come together to paint a picture that will leave smiles on any listeners’ faces and tears in their eyes. Not tears of sadness, but of joy at remembering their own childhood homes. It is the perfect opener for this album. And the perfection continues throughout the album, too. This is evident even halfway through the album in what had to have been one of the pieces penned by Ellen Harper, ‘Farmer’s Daughter.’
‘Farmer’s Daughter’ is another example of what makes Childhood Home such a stunning work from Ben and Ellen Harper. It is such a wonderful example of what makes this album great because it shows the album’s versatility. Where the album’s opener was full on folk, this song is more rooted in an Appalachian/Bluegrass vibe. Ellen sings about growing up on a farm as a girl and the pain of her family losing the farm. Considering the song’s lyrical content, one would have thought the song to have a more subdued musical sound. But that’s not the case, interestingly enough. Mrs. Harper recalls in her song, “My daddy is a father/That makes me a farmer’s daughter/It’s no joke/We’re always broke/We live on dirt and water/We can’t live on dirt and water.” She goes on to sing about her family’s farm not even belonging to them and how the bank eventually forecloses on the farm. She sings, “Jesse James/He robbed the banks/Shot that boy to death/Now the banks are robbing us/We got nothing left.” Along the way, she sings about the impact that these stresses had on her family. One of her sisters even left to strike out on her own. The song itself is quite the powerful statement. Again, the more powerful statement is the song’s less than stereotypical musical backing to those words. There is a certain tension in the music that heightens the emotion in Mrs. Harper’s lyrics. And it definitely helps translate the message to listeners. It is a far better choice for the song than what could have been used. It’s one more example of what makes this record such a joy, whether or not one is familiar with the work of Ben Harper or even his mother.
Ben and Ellen Harper present a vast sea of emotional depth throughout the course of the songs on Childhood Home. That depth comes courtesy of both the songs’ lyrics and music together. The album’s closer is the finishing touch on that exhibition. As with the nine songs that precede this song, the very first thing that will pull in listeners on this song is its simplicity. It is just the Harpers singing. Their vocals are backed by an equally simple percussion section. There is a shaker and what sounds like a Cajon Drum. The younger Harper and his mother sing about what would seem to be their religious beliefs. They sing, “So beautiful we had to stand aside/So beautiful we had to stand aside/We had to stand aside/With our arms open wide/So beautiful we had to stand aside/So beautiful we had to close our eyes/So beautiful we had to close our eyes/And listen to those sounds/It could be heard miles around/So beautiful we had to close our eyes.” Ben Harper alone has always had a knack for crafting songs that could tug at the deepest depths of the human soul. Alongside his mother, the duo’s harmonies in this song will tug at those depths like never before. When taken in as part of the whole that is Childhood Home, this song will most certainly leave not a single dry eye among listeners. Any listener not left even slightly teary-eyed after taking in this closer simply isn’t human. For that matter, anyone not left moved after hearing this song and the songs that precede it isn’t human. It is a beautiful work that boasts so much depth both musically and lyrically. That depth from the songs’ music and lyrics together makes Childhood Home one of this critic’s favorite new albums overall of 2014.
Childhood Home is available now in stores and online. Ben Harper is currently touring in support of Childhood Home. He is currently winding down the European leg of his tour in support of the album and will kick off the North American leg of his tour May 31st in Claremont, California. Fans can find out when Ben Harper will come to their town and keep up with the latest news from Ben Harper online now at http://www.facebook.com/benharper and http://www.benharper.com. To keep up with the latest sports and entertainment reviews and news, go online to http://www.facebook.com/philspicks and “Like” it. Fans can always keep up with the latest sports and entertainment reviews and news in the Phil’s Picks blog at http://philspicks.wordpress.com.