Tuesday, April 21, 2015

First name basis

You know how Coors Light claims to be “cold filtered?” Well Benjamin Booker’s voice is kind of like that. Except instead of good times, football, and twins, the sieve is composed of heavy gauge railroad gravel and thumbtacks. Just how much of that is effect and how much is genuine Booker family growl is a question too sophisticated for my ears to parse; the resulting sound, however, is distinctive enough regardless to at least hint at a cannon of first name guys like Bruce, Tom, and whatever astral creature did this.

What do you get when you combined a medieval black plague skeleton with an old family photo, an Instagram-inspired sepia-toned background, and a bar code?
Booker’s eponymous debut, Benjamin Booker, serves as a thesis statement to his sound. By the midpoint of the opener, “Violent Shiver,” you’ve heard the sonic basis for what’s to come – the distortion, the frentic pace, the occasional organ (!! !!), and, of coarse, that voice. The only change of pace comes when Booker slows it down on three songs that seem to close the distinct acts of the album.

That first quartet of songs follows the lead of “Violent Shiver” – all energy, and anticipation. On “Always Waiting” Booker flails at the woman – or is it the world? – he sees holding him back (“baby don’t wait…I’m not waiting!”) and on the following track urges that “you’ve got to find a better way.” Booker finally points all that agitation somewhere as he closes the first chapter with the subtle and soulful “Slow Coming.”

The second act seethes with the same vigor as the first, but those energies turn inward as the artist examines his relationship with himself – resilient, determined, and flawed: “I am what I am / I will make it on my own / I’m a new beginning / I will learn to love.” Then Booker reflects on his relationships with others. On “Have You Seen My Son,” the singer’s mother begs, “He’s lost in the world somewhere / I pray from him everyday.” By the time things slow down again, he – perhaps unsurprisingly – still hasn’t quite figured it out.*

*Do any of us ever?

If the first movement was about the world at large and the second about Booker himself, then the third looks at everyone else floating on through – a middle-class runaway, a worn-down Nirvana devotee, a family member heading down a dark path. Together, the three acts combine to make Benjamin a pretty solid infusion of – as Chuck Berry might say – blues, rock, rhythm, and jazz. While three distinct denouements can also make the album feel like the end of Return of the King at times, each focuses brilliantly on a single theme and conveys those ideas with power and style.

In the long run my only worry about Booker’s staying power (and believe me I hope he stays) is the constancy of his sound. There’s a reason three distinct works such as these are best combined in a single album – there’s precious little variety. I just I hope Booker can grow enough on his next project that he doesn’t turn become some version of the Black Keys – defined by a brand of distorted neo-blues garage rock* rather than defining it themselves.

*You can also hear more than a little pre-In the Dark Whigs on Benjamin

Nevertheless, The Black Keys are a pretty impressive floor and if Booker can find a way to grow the sound he establishes on Benjamin, one he shouldn’t have much trouble surpassing. It may take considerably longer for Ben to break through that exclusive circle of first name artists, but for the time being he’s certainly done enough to at least keep his debut in heavy rotation on my iPod.

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