Available with FIGHT FOR YOUR MIND and THE WILL TO LIVE in THE BEN HARPER BOX SET. Personnel: Ben Harper (vocals, acoustic & electric guitar, dobro); Suzie Katayama (cello); Richard Cook (Uillean pipes); John McKnight (accordion, bass); Gail Deadrick (piano); Rock Deadrick (drums, percussion, background vocals); Jelani Jones, Kevin Williams, Clyde Allen, Clarence Butler, Clabe Hangan, Kenneth McDaniel, John Taylor (background vocals). The aggressive, powerhouse sound singer/songwriter Ben Harper would introduce with his band the Innocent Criminals on 1998's THE WILL TO LIVE is not present on the artist's debut, WELCOME TO THE CRUEL WORLD. Instead, this '94 album shines a spotlight on Harper's acoustic guitar, plaintive voice, and soulful folk songs. Harper's intensity as a performer is clear from the opening guitar instrumental "The Three of Us" (which commands attention with its subtle, simple repetitions) to "I'll Rise," a gospel-inflected interpretation of Maya Angelou's poem "And Still I Rise." Sonically, the record is of a piece, with understated dynamics and an emphasis on intimate, acoustic, bluesy folk-rock. But Harper impresses most with his penchant for incorporating a range of stylistic influences, such as the late-'60s reggae cast of "Breakin' Down" and the Cajun-country romp of "Mama's Got a Girlfriend Now." Moreover, Harper strikes an admirable balance between songs that address issues of social injustice ("Like a King") and those that touch on personal concerns of love and identity ("Pleasure and Pain"). This combination, on top of Harper's obvious musical talents, makes for an impressive, thoroughly enjoyable first effort.