This debut album from 25-year-old, New Orleans-based singer and guitarist Benjamin Booker is a curious beast, existing in a strange and liminal place where scuzz-rock, dirty blues, southern boogie, country soul and punk-ish pop meet. It’s good, really good. Some of it is great. It has a frantic and manic energy, energy enough to spare. Its fuzz-guitar is dirty, its drums are thick and pounding, Booker’ voice is drawn and worn and suggestive of authenticity rather than pretension, and he and sideman Max Norton aren’ afraid to get sloppy and loose and weird when they rock.
But in the end, it’s let down by precisely that which makes it different: its diversity.
Beginning with a “Johnny B. Goode’ inspired guitar riff, opening track “Violent Shiver’ soon also features a driving, thumping proto-punk groove, surf-style drum breaks and Beach Boy-esque ooh-ooh-ooh backing vocals. Not even three minutes later (thank something for the return of short songs), second track “Always Waiting’ begins with a piece of post-Sabbath doom-sludge, morphs into a jangly and upbeat chord-driven tune underpinned by a train-train snare beat which would have seemed at home on an early Beatles record, and finally falls apart in a wash of psychedelic guitar noise that has steadily been growing more intrusive. Less than two and a half minutes after that (another short song, hooray), third track “Chippewa’ combines taut bar-room-boogie riffs with cruising-down-the-highway organ fills and the same train-train snare beat as “Always Waiting’, the whole lot dissolving into a distorted bridge/solo that’s fuzzy enough to almost collapse in on itself.
And so on it goes, an exhilarating mix of influences, a grab-bag of different styles, each song more disparate than the last, something that is ultimately exhausting and a little distracting.
It seems unsurprising, then, that the â€œstraightestâ€ tracks on Benjamin Booker are also the best. “Slow Coming’ is a beautifully mellow piece of bluesy-gospel-soul, with Booker’ strained voice taking centre-stage and the fuzzy guitars and pounding drums remaining understated until the song’ climax (pun definitely intended); while “I Thought I Heard You Screaming’ and “By the Evening’ take this process even further, for the most part featuring only Booker’ voice, a skeletal guitar and a single piece of hand-percussion.
All three more than justify the admission price. If Booker can restrain his hyperactive influence-mashing on his next album and embrace the spirit of these three particular songs, then it might just be a masterpiece.