Guitarist and vocalist Ben Harper and harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite have come together again in formidable collaboration for a second album, No Mercy In This Land, a blues record which combines Musselwhite’s exceptional technical ability and longstanding legacy with Harper’s more modern sensibilities. The soulful tunes and melancholy narrative of the album tie these two musicians together seamlessly and transport listeners to the heyday of blues music.
This album is Harper’s 14th release and Musselwhite’s 37th, and here their experience is evident. The latter rose to prominence as a blues electric harmonica player in the 1960s alongside Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters. He is often regarded as the last player of that particular pedigree of blues musician. It is a delight to hear his impeccable tone and ability showcased here. Harper himself is no blues rookie, demonstrating an intriguing mix of traditional techniques as well as some sounds more reminiscent of pop and folk.
No Mercy In This Land is in many ways the epitome of a blues record with a modern touch. Lyrical themes are typical of this genre: alcoholism, broken hearts and spirituality. Harper’s vocals are shaded and slurred in places, harking back to blues singers of old. Yet, in When Love Is Not Enough and Nothing At All, he highlights the versatility of his voice with a gentle, almost R&B sounding tone and moments of falsetto.
Harper’s honeyed voice melds nicely with his own guitar melodies and the dulcet quality of Musselwhite’s harmonica playing. The guitar, ranging from largely percussive in Bad Habits to wailing riffs in The Bottle Wins Again, features heavily in many of the tracks. Musselwhite brings blues authority to No Mercy In This Land, along with sonic depth and texture.
Movin’ On is a track which highlights the best this album has to offer, with a classic blues progression, it is upbeat and fun. Musselwhite plays a technically astounding harmonica solo and, as Harper sings the words “You may have learned to hustle but you never learnt to dance”, you can be sure he is not singing about anyone who has listened to this thoroughly foot-tappable song.
No Mercy In This Land sits somewhere between the the classic blues records of BB King and the mellow folk tunes of bands like Angus and Julia Stone. Whether you are a die-hard blues fan or just after a narrative driven and emotive album, No Mercy In This Land has something to offer.