review Marla Cantrell
Ben and Ellen Harper: $10
In May, a new album was released by Ben and Ellen Harper. Ben’s fans were intrigued. This three-time GRAMMY winner has garnered quite a following over the last twenty years. Not nearly as many remembered Ellen, who was a folk singer decades ago but never gained as much fame or attention as her son. When Childhood Home came out, Ben’s die-hard fans and those curious about this new collaboration raced to get this album. On it, there are ten songs: six written by Ben and four written by his mom, Ellen. In one of his first interviews about the recording, Ben said it was produced the same way the early Elvis songs were. Nothing was plugged in, everything was acoustic. As for the genre, it’s likely going to be categorized as folk or Americana. No matter what box you put it in, rest assured, this is some of the best music you’ll ever hear.
The album starts out with “A House Is A Home,” a profound song about what home means, and why it matters, even if there’s no picket fence around it, even if everything inside is not how it ought to be. “A house is a home even when it’s dark/Even when the grass is overgrown in the yard/Even when the dog is too old to bark/And you’re sitting at the table trying not to starve.”
What makes this record even better is the way Ben and Ellen’s voices meld together, so perfectly, so seamlessly. It helps that they’ve sung together all of Ben’s life. Ellen, a single mom, worked with her parents at The Folk Music Center and Museum in Claremont, California, while Ben was growing up. Part of the program was music lessons, and Ben took plenty from his grandmother. And when he got out of school in those years, he showed up to work with Ellen, helping however he could. Ellen continues to run the center today.
Ben said that music was such a part of their lives that it felt like another brother (he has two others), always around, always sitting at the table with them. As he grew older, his talent grew with him, and he started making waves in the industry. But there was always this thought that he could produce something with his mom, something his own children (he has four) would be proud of. Recently, he said he’s heard them singing songs from Childhood Home, something that makes him ridiculously happy.
This album feels like it’s been around forever. It could be that it’s the tone of it: folksy, bluesy, at times heartbreaking. But it’s the voices too. At certain points, Ellen sounds a little like Emmylou Harris. On “City of Dreams,” she sings about the town she grew up in, and how it isn’t the same anymore, not since the orange groves were paved over, and the freeways took over, and the landmarks were lost to parking lots.
But it’s on “Learn It All Again Tomorrow” where both Ben and Ellen shine. The song is one of the best on the album, and reads like an anthem for those of us who feel we’re forced to repeat the same mistakes until we finally figure things out. “If my wheels were square but the earth was jagged/I’d roll along and be no less ragged / Than I seem to be today / I’m usually this way.”
Other standouts are “Altar Of Love,” about a wife who does everything right but still loses her husband to a woman who hangs on his every word and makes him feel like a god. Old love, it seems, is no match for what’s shiny and new. “Break Your Heart” is a song that looks at the end of a relationship before it’s even begun, why we jump in anyway, knowing there’s disaster right around the corner.
Childhood Home has been called honest and intimate. And it’s both. It’s also the kind of music that stands the test of time. Thank goodness Ben and Ellen Harper decided to take the leap, to put their deepest thoughts on paper, and let us listen in.