Benjamin Booker: Profound and Pulse-Pounding
It doesn’t take very long to get lured into the self-titled debut record from New Orlean’s Benjamin Booker. The blues-rock album will easily rank among the best debuts of the year — if not one of the best releases in general.
Album opener and lead single “Violent Shiver” is a rollicking punk take on the blues (or vice versa?). It’s almost destined for the near end of a workout playlist — the song is like a freight train hitting its peak speed.
There are moments of sheer brilliance when songs become similarly unhinged. The song “Spoon Out My Eyeballs,” which starts at a dreary pace, finishes with a blistering breakdown. Booker asks in his signature growl: “Do you remember April 17th when I lost my shit and a couple teeth? And I said ‘Oh God, I need someone to help keep moving on my feet.’ It’s getting harder, harder to be real — to be real, darling.”
“Have You Seen My Son?” a song that deals with religion in a cheeky manner (“God must love everyone, even the ones the church loves the least.”), ends on a guitar solo that makes up about half the length of the song. The phrase “letting loose” applies here; and that’s a major strength of the album. For a good number of songs, one can imagine him and his backing band members kicking back with a few beers and jamming out these tracks.
At the same time, there is great lyrical depth. “Kids Never Growing Older” is a protest song in a sense. The verses are whisper quiet at times, with an exploding chorus. The chorus repeats: “Retaliation!/Don’t say they never told you/Shame of the nation/Kids never growing older.” The last repetition cuts off at the end of the song, which has a powerful effect.
And on “Slow Coming,” Booker croons of a little girl being shot for tying her shoes and how the state dictates who people can marry. Yes, the future is a long way off for the oppressed. “Honestly, how can I be proud right now?” Booker asks. Even on “Wicked Waters,” which might be the catchiest song on the record, Booker laments “The world’s become a stagnant place.”
Booker walks this fine line of creating catchy rock and roll music while infusing it with a societal message. And it works — he’s never preaching and it’s never overbearing.
His live performances of the songs — I’ve managed to catch him at Newport Folk Fest and opening for Courtney Barnett — are raw and intense. Considering he’s only been singing for two years, he comes off as a seasoned veteran with a self-assured stage presence. Max Norton, his drummer, contributes so much to the band’s success, too — that train engine-feeling is largely Norton’s work.
Live or studio-recorded, Benjamin Booker is an artist to pay attention to. His debut doesn’t just open the door for a followup, it knocks the door right off its frame.
Originally published at www.therefra.in.