Ramshackle, Unhinged Cowpunk
Legendary bluesman Robert Johnson apparently sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in Mississippi to acquire his talent. Benjamin Booker needs his own mythos. What good is a bluesman without one? So, here’s what happened: Rough Trade Records mixed Chuck Berry with B.B. King in a big old pot of Gumbo (there may have been voodoo involved), threw in some pinches of The Gun Club’s cowpunk and a generous portion of 1950s rock n roll energy. The ramshackle result is New Orleans based garage rock/blues wunderkind Benjamin Booker.
The devious record label then plonked this young man in front of a group consisting of the bastard offspring of the Meat Puppets and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Crafty bastards. With this band of miscreants he created an album packed with raucous garage rock influenced blues (and a couple of hymnal type ballads). In one afternoon.
In reality Booker is a 25 year old singer/guitarist from Virginia who relocated to New Orleans. He likes T. Rex, Blind Willie Johnson, and The Gun Club. I prefer my version.
Booker’s debut is raw. The songs are filled with ecstatic bursts of guitar, 3am vocals, and fuzz fueled guitars. This should come as little surprise seeing as the record is produced by Andrija Tokic, the man behind the sound of Alabama Shakes’ debut Boys & Girls. While the rawness of the production on that record lent Alabama Shakes a vulnerability for their soul rock, the approach helps Booker’s rave-ups achieve a near live sound.
Opening track and lead single “Violent Shiver” sets the tone for the record with it’s visceral fuzzy blues guitar, super busy drums and Booker’s throaty “hand me the cough medicine” vocals. It’s an updated version of “Johnny B. Goode” distilled through Jack White’s and The Strokes’ retro fixation. It reeks of moonshine and car chases.
“Always Waiting”, “Chippewa”, and “Wicked Waters” are all picked from the same field. It’s a highly successful formula, at times because of strong memorable melodies (“Have You Seen My Son?”, “Old Hearts”) but also due to the sheer enthusiasm of Booker and his band. Drummer Max Norton is particularly impressive. He’s no Dave Grohl (who is?), but he attacks his kit as if it’s on fire and he’s trying to put it out.
Some respite from the hard partying punk/blues is offered in “Slow Coming”, “Spoon Out My Eyeballs”, and “Kids Never Grow Older”. These are typically mournful and more reflective than their brethren on the record, and somewhat similar to the more low key offerings from the aforementioned Alabama Shakes in soulfulness. Booker doesn’t quite shine as brightly in this environ as the primal energy of his band’s performance is not present to scaffold any shortcomings in the music. Regardless, his hessian vocals add just enough authenticity to render these offerings a success.
In the midst of the high octane punk/blues of Booker’s debut, he intones: “The future is slow coming.” In the retromania of 2014, the future is certainly sluggish in it’s arrival. It’s shocking that in 2014, Saved By The Bell looks like a contemporary tv show. While we’re waiting for the future (read hoverboards), Booker provides a raucous and history fueled remake of all the music he loves. He can deal with the future next time around.