Benjamin Booker, it is important to say, is from Florida. Last year he played the Ninebullets Anniversary party on the same day he found out he got signed to a little label named ATO. Around the same time he picked up and moved the band to New Orleans, where he currently resides. This record, self-titled, is the first for the 25-year-old rock and roller. The core of the band is Booker on guitar and vocals, Max Norton on drums, and Jem Cohen on bass. Those are the objective truths of this record.
Here’s the subjective truths that I’m going to try to convince you of about this record: we’re watching a talent with the potential to be one of the greats grow in front of our very eyes. Booker’s violent guitar playing and almost spasming song structure lead to toe-tapping and shoulder-shimmying, almost as soon as the music starts. The instruments travel on the same journey as the lyrics, and more often than not Booker wants his last word to be delivered by his guitar. The wildly catchy single “Violent Shiver” sounds like a hidden Chuck Berry demo polished to a brilliance that you just don’t want to stop. “Spoon Out My Eyeballs”, a love song to either music itself or the object of Booker’s admiration, features a thematic shift two minutes in that feels so natural and joyful as to immediately inspire dancing every time it happens.
Booker is more than just a deft hand with a guitar, however: he has the voice that John Mayer has always wanted. This is more evident nowhere than the ponderous “Slow Coming”. The song, a lamentation of the contrast between how far the world has come and how far it still has to go, sounds like the melancholy sequel to “A Change Is Gonna Come”.
Honestly, how could I be proud right now
To tell you the truth, I ain’t been sleeping too well
Each of the songs on this record have the same driving force, however carefully or barely restrained. There’s a desire here to tell a story as much through sound as through lyrics. To me there’s a distinction between someone wanting to play cool music and someone wanting to paint a picture using the brute force power of an electric guitar. Booker definitely subscribes to the latter school of thought. In trying to figure this record out I consulted our friendly neighborhood Autopsy IV and asked him what he thought of the band. He urged me not to overlook Norton’s drums, and the harder I listened to them the more impressed I became. It’s easy to pay attention to the flash of the electric guitar, but half of the wild energy that permeates the record comes from Norton’s drum kit. This is a band that enjoys making noise.
I got the chance to see Booker play live here in Los Angeles, and I have to say that he lived up to my expectations. There is a kind of cavalier showmanship, a supreme musical confidence, that some artists only come close to achieving in sound stages with cameras running. Every song sounded just as good or better than on the record, and Booker demonstrated both that he is the master of both demure crooning and passionate harmonic screams.
Benjamin Booker by Benjamin Booker is Essential Listening. It’s a rock and roll record about searching for something, about facing the hard truths of life and deciding whether to stand or to run. I wish I could go into greater detail about the lyrics, but I can’t: Booker made the decision to not release lyrics with the record. It makes me wonder how much of it is personal, so much so that he’s more comfortable sharing the songs than the words that make them up. Having seen him play I think that’s a safe assumption to make. I’ll leave you with my favorite lyric from the record, a line from the second single “Have You Seen My Son”:
God must love everyone,
Even the ones He just loves the least