BEN HARPER The Will To Live (Virgin America)

The third album by this American singer/songwriter/slide guitarist is a marked improvement on his previous work, the slightly overlong and unfocussed "Fight For Your Mind". His music is an impressive fusion of blues, folk, reggae and gospel influences; in fact the best way to describe it would be to say that if Hendrix hadn’t booked up for the great gig in the sky, and suppose that over the intervening few decades he’d mellowed in much the same way as his old mate Eric, he’d probably be making albums that sound a lot like "The Will To Live" today.

Harper is a darn good songwriter - there’s plentiful evidence of that in tracks like "Roses From My Friends", "Jah Work", "I Want To Be Ready" and "Widow Of A Living Man", but what really grabs your attention is his voice, a high-pitched, pleading, rootsy sound that’s half Will Oldham/Neil Young melancholy and half Bob Marley. There’s some unobtrusive string and brass arrangements and solid backup from his rhythm section the Innocent Criminals (hey, they’re a power trio come to think of it, just like Cream and the Experience!).

If you’re at all interested in the rootsier byways of contemporary music, try to hear "The Will To Live". No doubt it’ll get completely ignored in the end of year polls (well, maybe an honorary mention in Mojo at the most), but it has more soul than the greater percentage of the albums that get the gongs.

BEN HARPER & THE INNOCENT CRIMINALS Live From Mars (Virgin Records America)

"Live From Mars" is a double CD crammed full of performances by Ben Harper and his backing band The Innocent Criminals, taped on unspecified dates at unspecified locations (although not, I think it's reasonable to assume, on the titular red planet itself). Harper's music mixes Hendrix's vapour-trailing guitar pyrotechnics with Bob Marley's pride and conscience, spiked with the distinctive sound of the Weissenborn instrument Harper frequently elects to play. For me this potent brew reached its apotheosis on the 1997's "The Will To Live", and that album's "Glory & Consequence", which opens proceedings here, summarises everything that's great about "Live From Mars" and Ben Harper in six easily digestible minutes: perfect, pummelling melody, rocket-powered instrumental dexterity and lyrics worth chewing over afterwards. Other special moments on CD1, which features electric material recorded with a full band, would include the delicious outbreak of harmony vocals that drips from his cover of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing", Nick Rich and Rahzel's human beatbox activity on the joyous "Steal My Kisses" (which could easily have been saddled with the same short shelf life as a breakdancing video) and the Indian-strung lamentation that opens "Forgiven", which sounds more typical of one of the late, great Jeff Buckley's larynx workouts . "Woman In You" crests several times from Harper's delicate Curtis Mayfield falsetto to a raging torrent of distorted guitar. Sometimes - but only sometimes - proceedings drag a little, for example the medley of the usually dependable "Faded" and "Whole Lotta Love", which seems slightly lazy and indulgent compared to Harper's perfectly-judged original (and don't even begin to ponder the dichotomies inherent in an artist who covers "Sexual Healing" and "Whole Lotta Love" on the same album!). Mostly, though, the first disc of "Live From Mars" is premier stuff.

The second CD consists of acoustic material apparently recorded in a more intimate setting than the Enormodomes pictured in the cover photographs. Although the absence of the band is sometimes sorely felt, there are enough moments of genius presented here to compensate, including the ever-fabulous "Roses For My Friends" and a cover of "The Drugs Don't Work". Best bit is undoubtedly the closing twosome of "Like A King" - whose anti-LAPD/pro-Rodney King simmering anger is barely concealed beneath Harper's quiet humility and precise but burning fingerpicking, a searing hotbed of oppression ready to explode - and the marvellous "I'll Rise", which takes its text from the works of Maya Angelou, sounding like Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" embracing affirmative action. The reactions of an enraptured audience are clearly audible throughout - shouts of "I love you" and "Thank you" punctuate the songs - but they hardly detract from the entertainment presented. If anything does it's possibly the length of the package, which tips the clock at two and a quarter hours: perhaps a sensitively edited single disc could have been more thrilling still. Otherwise, though, "Live From Mars" is as good as it could possibly get, and highly recommended. (An aside: a friend bought a second-hand copy of "Live From Mars" from a record shop in Boston (the American kind!), which included a hand-written note which we assumed to be from a member of staff congratulating him on his choice of this fine CD! It's one of those rare albums that encourages such acts of proselytization.)