Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals Lifeline (Virgin) A nine-month tour wasn't enough to sap the prolific and gifted singer songwriter Ben Harper. In fact, he took the energy and tight relationships he'd built with backing band the Innocent Criminals and, at the end of the European leg of the tour, he booked into a Paris studio to lay down tracks for Lifeline, his eighth album. Harper took a series of risks. The album was recorded live in just one week on a six-track analog tape machine with no computer trickery. It's testament to Harper's talent that while such a move could be disastrous for a lesser musician the lack of production and polish on Lifeline doesn't detract from what is a near-perfect album. Perhaps because the musicians knew each other so well it has a laidback loose vibe, with little flab. Opener Fight Outta You has Harper at his Tom Waits best while In the Colours is a gentle funky love song full of the optimistic lyrics that run through much of the album. Needed You Tonight moves from raunchy electric blues to gentle ballad and back again, while Having Wings reveals why Harper is sometimes compared to Bob Dylan. While Harper is famous for championing social justice and the plight of the marginalised, on Lifeline he moves away from broader concerns. These songs are more intimate, concerning love and living the best life one can. The aforementioned Needed You Tonight, for example, is a rollicking bluesy call to a lover long gone. He opens Say You Will with a chant before moving into gospel territory with a wild piano and a female chorus that sounds straight out of church on Sunday. Though the lyrics are up to scratch, it's the title track that is the one weak link on the album. Overall, however, the mix of acoustic and electric successfully moves Harper away from rock to an optimistic brand of gospel and blues.