Virginia Beach’s Benjamin Booker must be a marvel to watch in the recording studio. It sounds like he can’t stand still for too long — songs on his debut self-titled album drift in and out of genres and tempos more often than one would expect from an album which on first listen, sounds like a distant cousin of Jack White’s strain of adrenaline-kissed blues. Booker’s froggy voice carries a listener through a dozen tracks, which dip and dive through traditionally-minded blues with added pushes from punk and straightforward rock n’ roll. This strategy insists on keeping each track away from stale territory or retreading ground already kicked up earlier in the track listing.
Right away, first track “Violent Shiver,” delivers what a listener might expect from a 21st century blues-rock revivalist LP — nostalgia-drenched and solo-ready guitar lines, organ swirls, and a driving backbeat cut through by Booker’s gravelly, smoke-swallowed vocals. It’s a straightforward track that serves as an introduction to an album that largely does away with convention. Sure, there may touches of gospel swimming around in the adjoining “Always Waiting” or the confessional hymnal reading “Wicked Waters,” but both tracks deliver salvation with a heavy shot of punk-rock genius. Crash-heavy drum interplay and a healthy dose of retro fuzz bridge the gap between antiquated lyrical and modern instrumental tropes.
Genre-blending isn’t anything new, and seasoned audiophiles might choke back a “so what?” at any half-hearted attempt at musical alchemy. Enter “Have You Seen My Son?,” a three-act track smack dab in the middle of Booker which begins jaunty and is spiked by tambourine flourishes and the aforementioned fuzzy backdrop. Booker transports his backing band to New Orleans, with storytelling oriented at the center of the action. As the track reaches its climax, military-grade snare coaxes the energy down a considerable notch, before fast-paced guitar cuts through the new sonic space. This sugar rush doesn’t last for long, as the frenzy dismantles to showcase something more shocking — Act III’s crunch-stuffed restraint. The track’s conclusion, oozing with anthemic ambition, unites the track’s rollicking beginning with its release of a conclusion. This circular logic comes off wiser than most mismatched genre experiments and seems to continue throughout the album as an overarching artist’s statement.
“Spoon Out My Eyeballs” begins with slow-burning balladry in its sights, but soon jumpstarts Booker’s best attempt at emulating Speedy Gonzalez — the track’s final minute splits open against incredible pressure from jangly, untuned walls of guitar chords as drums bite back against this force in double-time before a sweeping fade-out. The record’s parting shot, “By the Evening,” shares the same trajectory, as a backwater-primed acoustic ditty that gives way to a full-band affair as a potent endcap.
This isn’t to say Booker never returns to more cut-and-dry offerings per “Violent Shiver.” “Slow Coming” is Booker’s flagship ballad, one trapped in languid half-time for its entire near-five minutes. “Old Hearts” calls to mind the trademarks brandished on track one, with punk-propelled drum frenetics pushing forward a boxing match between eternal youth and old age. This larger theme, in fact, is better explored on the following cut “Kids Never Grow Older,” which finds a speaker “making it to a better place [but not] drink[ing] the water.”
Benjamin Booker may have proven his salt as a potent mixologist of genre and scope on his first record (even allowing him to play a show run with the previously-mentioned White), but even he knows he can’t truly enjoy the fruits of his labor until the golden ratio between complacency and artistry is found.
Because Benjamin Booker‘s tracks boast a dynamic range, a pressing which shunts their kaleidoscopic ambition would be troubling. Luckily, this doesn’t happen, save for surface noise that drizzles across the starts and ends of sides. Instruments are buried and bolstered in the mix when they have to be, with the light organ flourishes on the early-featured “Chippewa” never swallowed by louder, beefier tones. I will admit Booker’s vocal tones led to sometimes indistinguishable lyrics, but that’s a testament to his unique delivery and this intentional muddiness can be found on the digital version of the record, as well.
Booker’s musical agenda is matched well by unadorned but enjoyable packaging. ATO forewent the commonplace glossy sleeves used by many labels and opted to print jackets on matte stock instead, adding a tangible grit to the artist’s rough sound. The artwork is similar and offers up some great art direction, with X-ray imagery a thematic callback to tracks like “Old Hearts.” The pressing includes a double-sided 12″x12″ insert, which serves as a continuation of the outer sleeve’s simple, but interesting, sights.
It would be odd for a blues-minded artist such as Booker to have a record pressed on colored vinyl — so all copies of his self-titled release have been given the classic black treatment. A limited-edition 7″ single featuring album tracks “Violent Shiver” and “Spoon Out My Eyeballs” was pressed on red vinyl and limited to 500 copies, though, and is still available. A digital download code is included.
It seems Benjamin Booker has truly established himself as a promising act in the blues-rock community, especially when considering the few stylistic tricks he has up his sleeve. This balance of grit and melody is perfect for the vinyl format and paves the way for the beginning of an interesting career.
“Violent Shiver,” “Have You Seen My Son?” and “In the Evening”
Benjamin Booker’s self-titled LP is still available for purchase at ATO Records’ webstore.